“Brain Freeze: Does your eLearning System Cause Learning Paralysis?”

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The advent of technology options can be exciting.  However, the influx of information to an individual’s brain may prove to be debilitating to one’s decision making process or may result to learning paralysis for learners. Considering the limitations of the brain’s working memory to handle a certain quantity of information, elearning developers should seriously reflect on their implementation strategies. Avoid the Zombie Tech effect.
How many of us are guilty of these: answering emails while having dinner with our families; feeling left out when you miss the most recent tweets; unable to set aside the iPad and continuously checking Facebook while playing “Angry Birds?” If you exhibit one of these behaviors, you may be suffering from what I call the “Zombie Tech Effect.”

(Click here to play the self-reflection exercise.)

The Zombie Tech Effect is my description of behavioral manifestations when we suffer from information overload that disables us from making quality decisions or results to learning paralysis.)

Twitterization overload

In a Newsweek article (February 27, 2011), (link) Sharon Begley reported a study conducted by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University on “combinatorial auctions.” Dimoka explains that in bidding wars that resemble eBay, the more information the person receives, the less likely he/she makes good decisions.  Although there are many benefits to Twitter, Facebook and many other social media tools, Dimoka says there are unintended consequences. A serious side effect is “brain freeze.”

In her study, volunteers’ brain activities were measured with an fMRI. As the information load to the brain rapidly increased , the activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions – freezes; it ceases to function as if a “circuit breaker had popped.” A key reason is that our brain’s working memory can only handle seven items at one given time . Anything beyond that must be processed into long term memory. Any additional information from that point and beyond tends to hamper or paralyze people’s ability to make sound decisions.

Sadly, the deluge of information and the rate at which the brain gets bombarded with them cause diminishing or negative returns as it struggles to make smart and successful decisions.

People experience information anxiety

There are impacts on productivity and well being with information overload.

In “Dying for Information?” a investigative work on the effects of information overload, (Waddington, 96), 44% of the over 1,313 managers and executives interviewed, believe that the cost of collating information exceeds its value to the business. Furthermore, two-thirds of the respondents report tensions with work challenges and loss of job satisfaction because of stress associated with information overload.

Old familiar learning term – cognitive overload

Dimoka’s investigation and previous studies on cognitive overload reminds us that there are inadvertent consequences if our learning approaches do not add the cautionary step to ensure we are not inundating our learners.

In the training and learning practice we have become accustomed to the concept of not overloading our learners. Too much information does not help learners retain or learn.  However, we seem to have ignored this old rule whenever we design technology driven assisted learning, in particular eLearning and social learning projects. The same symptoms of learning paralysis and information anxiety do exist and are observable in our learners.  How do we identify these problems and what do we do about it.

Learning models and assumptions about learners

In June, 2008, I wrote about Groundswell Insights – Why Trainers Often Say, “It Does Not Work”. The chart below is a learning model showing different types of learning behaviors and the environments wherein they operate.

(Click here for wider view of the chart.)

In this chart, I aim to explain that different methods of learning result from different givens. As learning designers we need to orchestrate these conditions that will produce the right combination of results.  We can either do a good work of matching or cause havoc without well-thought-out plans.

How, where and when does information overload and “brain freeze” happen in learning environments? Many of them are systemic – software selection and implementation practices. 

The right tools for the right objectives: We should not use Twitter, Facebook and other similar tools to aid in deliberate practice – where we expect learners to retain knowledge and build the mastery of skills. Neither should we use instructional methods of teaching when we post and share knowledge in Twitter or Second Life.  In essence, to support a learning behavior, the right combination of tools must be applied. 

Suggestion: Avoid embracing tools and technologies without experimentation and testing. Sometimes the hyped up functionalities deliver less than promised. Have a personal experience to see the impacts of the tool.  In some instances, it is even better to see the experiences of early adaptors. 

Awareness and readiness: Another failing I often observe is using the tools like Twitter, Wiki and Blog in learning designs and presuming that the learners have the readiness – skills, attitudes, equipment – to be creators in open learning environments.  The power and promise of technologies could not compensate for the lack of the learners’ readiness. The lack of proper skills definitely causes learning paralysis and anxiety.

Suggestion: Conduct a Techno Profile Survey. This survey helps you assess the readiness of your audience.

Business culture and practice: If your organizational culture and the nature of your business mandates a specific learning method, this supersedes all other possible approaches. Here are two case comparisons. In the first case, a Cisco technician has to have instant learning through his/her smart phone because new valuable information happens almost every minute – like a solution to the most recent virus attack.  On the other hand, a pharmaceutical lab technician has to learn safety compliance procedures for HIV drug research – where rigid rules must be followed.  As a result, the Cisco technician welcomes the newest updates since it is critical to his/her performance.  However, the lab technician is required to adhere to strict routine processes. 

Suggestion: Have a strategic level conversation with your top leaders. Align your learning system and practices with what supports  the business needs and interests.

Marriage or divorce between an LMS and Social Learning:  LMSs work best to support just-in- case learning, while social learning systems are ideal for just- in-time learning. Combining these two tools under one roof may be good vendor hype; however, they could lead to “psychotic” learning systems. To illustrate, many of the content published in LMSs are compliance or mandated learning. Many learners grudgingly study the courses. Social learning systems, on the other hand, are highly interactive and participative systems. Learners are self-motivated to contribute ideas. Inherently, these two learning motives and behaviors are not compatible.

Without a proper strategy for selecting learning systems, companies could be throwing their learners into confusion and overwhelming them with too many types of learning methods.

Suggestion: Select one dominant purpose for a learning system – an LMS or Social Learning. Before you modify, purchase or implement a hybrid solution, think twice about your implementation strategies to minimize confusion.


We can easily overwhelm learners with information and content overload from our lessons. However, what is more problematic is the inappropriate selection of systems and implementation practices: readiness, methods and goals, business culture and learning system selections. Include plans to check for systemic information overloads in your implementation strategy.

Ray Jimenez, PhD 
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

One thought on ““Brain Freeze: Does your eLearning System Cause Learning Paralysis?”

  1. The blog was how do i say it… relevant, finally something that helped me. Thanks:)


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