Size does matter: Larger brains can hold more!

Size-mattersA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, people didn’t have mobile phones to store their phone numbers in. People actually had to use their own memory to store these long numbers. But getting these numbers into long-term memory could be a real pain. People had to write the number down, say it over and over again to themselves and with each verbal iteration, something annoying would happen – the number would fade out of memory. To get the number into long-term memory you had to keep repeating the number, over and over again, fast enough to beat the fade away.

This short-term, fast fading memory is called working memory. It’s like the RAM in a computer: it holds everything in your mind ready for action, simulation or a decision. Working memory is related to our IQ and even to some mental disorders, but we don’t know why some people can fit a lot more information into their working memory than others. Yes, it’s very unfair. As I mentioned before in the post on extending your mind, some people can hold huge amounts of information in their mind and even manipulate it, trying out different ideas etc, while other brains or minds can only hold small amounts.

Why do you have the particular capacity you have? How can we investigate these differences between people? It turns out the key to answering these questions is to get people to remember information in only one of their 5 senses, such as vision. By doing this we narrow down the field of things to investigate and can look at the precise brain anatomy related to just that one sense in different people and figure out which parts of your brain allow greater information capacity.

14618772953_45f8cbf809_zThis is exactly what we did in a recent paper from my lab. We found that people with larger brains could hold more temporary information in their mind. Specifically, people with larger visual parts of their brains were the ones who could hold more visual information in their minds. This is interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is it suggests that the physical parameters of our brains set the limits to what we can do with non-physical things like the contents of our mind. In other words, the visual cortex is like a bucket: the larger the bucket the more water it can hold. The larger your visual cortex the more visual information you can hold in mind. With more information in mind, you can do… well, a lot more.

Visual working memory capacity is predicted by anatomical properties of V1.

Visual working memory capacity is predicted by anatomical properties of primary visual cortex.

But all this doesn’t make it any fairer for those that can’t hold much ‘in mind’. The next logical question is: Why do I have a large or small brain? Well, when it comes to visual cortex, data suggests that our genes play a role. The cortex, the outer layer of the brain, is a like a gooey grey sheet that is all wrinkled up on itself. In fact, there are two different components to the size or volume of the primary visual cortex: thickness and surface area. These two different measures seem unrelated to each other, but both have a heritable component. In other words, it seems that your parents or ancestors might have passed your visual cortex down to you, or at least it’s size.

So does all this come down to luck? Well, as with most things, yes and no. There is now some promising research looking at how training or practice can literally change the architecture of your brain.

The now famous book, The brain that changes itself is a great general read on the topic. However, there are many more specific research papers, investigating how practicing visual tasks can change not only your vision, but parts of your brain as well.


Here is the reference and link to our original paper:

Bergmann, J., Genç, E., Kohler, A., Singer, W.A. & Pearson, J. (2014). Neural anatomy of primary visual cortex limits visual working memory. Cerebral Cortex.

Want to know more about all of this? How to measure visual working memory or brain size? Let us know in the comments.

How to instantly boost your brainpower by extending your mind…

Does this sound familiar? You’re in a meeting discussing the future direction of your new company, should you pivot this way or stay the course?

You try and imagine, one future vs. the other, you visualise a timeline of your startup, the ups and downs, the transformations, the new and old products. At the same time you try and visualise the company you want, the bright future, the success, changing the world – but as all this imagery flashes through your mind, something annoying happens. You try really hard, using all your mental effort to squeeze these mental simulations into existence all simultaneously. To make the right choice you need to have a clear comparison between your options, but every time you try and hold all the information in mind, it almost hurts, you almost get there at peak effort, but with each new visualization, another is lost. You just can’t do it, your mind disobeys your orders, it simply won’t hold all the information at once, it won’t or can’t.

3861339752_ba217e3640_zI want to let you in on a little secret, some of us can hold more information in mind than others. Yes that’s right, it’s completely unfair. You might know a high capacity individual, someone who seems to  stare magically into space, compare all the many many options and come up with a clear new idea – all done virtually in their mind.

Well you heard it here, just like some of us have newer faster computers with more ram, some of use can do more and see more with our minds – YES I KNOW IT’S COMPLETELY UNFAIR.

But there is a way to level the playing field.

I want to let you in on a little secret, a surprisingly simple way to overcome this unfairness. If you are not already doing this, you will be amazed at how much more capacity you can add to you mind (mind extension/ boost brainpower).

Here is the solution: Use physical aids, like a whiteboard, cards or a huge touch screen, anything to get the information down, something visible so you don’t have to hold all the information in your mind. Yes yes, I hear you saying we all take notes or use a white board in meetings, that’s nothing new.

What I telling you goes further. It is a clear and simple strategy to keep your mind free and empty so you can focus your entire mind on coming up with new ideas.



1. Make (physical) visual symbols that clearly show or represent all the elements, ingredients or pieces of your puzzle that are required.

2. The physical visual symbols need to be dynamic, so you can move them around. This is important, if they are not dynamic you will just end up having to use your mind again (and we don’t want this).

3. You need to be able to add and subtract the physical visual symbols on the fly.

Put all the pieces of the puzzle down, dynamically so you can move them around.

You need to be able to play with the geometry here, the relationships, in anyway you want – which thing comes first, which ones are related etc. If you cannot shift these chunks of information around using your symbols, you will fall back into the same trap again. You will start trying to hold them all in your mind, and you’re back to square one, the capacity of your mind will be all used up!

mind_extensionThe only thing your mind should be doing is looking at the global relationship and playing around to come up with new ideas, the light bulb moment.

If you start having to imagine other elements, then stop. You are using your mental capacity on the ingredients or content again. You are ‘wasting’ your mind on representation, you want to save your mind for creation.

Stop and make new symbols. Your mind should be only focusing on new ideas.

Using these physical visual objects you have freed up your mind to do the actual important stuff – coming up with the new creative ideas.

Its very simple, you CANNOT do both things at once. You cannot visualise all your options or content and move them around, looking at the big picture and come up a new creative idea. When you attempt this you use up all your brain’s power on creating and holding the elements in mind – it’s a waste (in this situation). The priority is the creative new idea, NOT holding the ingredients in mind.


There is plenty of good science to back all this up:

1. What we can hold in mind is servery limited to only a few things around 3-4 visual items (Baddeley, 2012; Luck et al., 2013), but you can hold more numbers in mind.

2. Holding information in mind like this is called using Working Memory and it’s effortful and can be hard.

3. Each thing we hold in working memory can interfere with other things in working memory (Franconeri et al., 2013).

4. Multitasking is a myth, what we actually do when multitasking is switch back and forth between different tasks. But when we do this we make more errors in each task (Rogers et al., 1995).

John Medina has some great and easy to follow material on this topic in his book Brain Rules.

Specifically for easy to follow info on multitasking checkout the section of Brain Rules on Attention

Mind Extension:

More generally this idea of extending your mind has been around for a while. Well-known philosophers David Charmers and Andy Clarke have written about it, have a look here.

It is a simple but profound idea, that everything we use to perform actions is in some way an extension of our mind – just like using the visual symbols above.

One of the most common examples of this in recent times is using your cell phone to remember phone numbers for you. Once, not too long ago we used to spend time and effort memorizing phone numbers, just like the example I started out with above, this puts a tax on working memory, while using it to memorize the phone number you cannot use it for other things. Now many of us use a smart phone that effortlessly stores phone numbers alongside photos and the name of each contact individual, so we don’t have to waste our working memory on phone number memorization.

Here is a great Sydney TED talk by Chalmers on the extended mind:

As Chalmers mentions, Google can be thought of as an amazing extension of our mind. Rather than spending hours, days or weeks committing things to memory, we now have information on DEMAND.

Having information on demand at the click of a button has major implications for entrepreneurs, scientists and perhaps most of all to education. I have an upcoming Post on information on DEMAND so stay tunned.

Have an interesting story of freeing your mind? How have you used technology to free your mind so you can focus on new ideas? Please share…



Baddeley, A. (2012). Working Memory: Theories, Models, and Controversies. Annual review of psychology, 63(1), 1–29. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100422

Franconeri, S. L. et al. (2013). Flexible cognitive resources: competitive content maps for attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(3), 134–141. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.01.010

Luck, S. J. et al. (2013). Visual working memory capacity: from psychophysics and neurobiology to individual differences. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.06.006

Rogers, R. D. et al. (1995). Costs of a predictible switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of experimental psychology General, 124(2), 207