CLI (Cognitive Load Indicator)

In a world of endless signal and noise coming at us from all angles including TV, radio, the web, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, blog posts, email, text messages, Slack, and fill in another 50 different sources of stuff, we don’t have a measurement for the sentiment of the noise (and signal) and the toll it takes on our thinking.

If you pay attention to finance, you are familiar with the VIX, which is officially the implied volatility of S&P 500 index options. It’s unofficially known as the fear index and is a measure of the market’s expectation of stock market volatility over the next 30 days. For example, here’s the VIX for the past 12 months.

VIX for the past 12 months

I don’t pay attention to the VIX on a daily basis as I don’t care about the stock market but I find it interesting in hindsight to see how it correlates to changes in the DJIA over a long period of time.


In February, I was pondering the tone of the noise – and the signal – that was coming my way. If I had a measure for it the fear in it, it tracked the VIX pretty well (a sharply increasing level with a peak some time in early March followed by a rapid decline back to normal). At the same time, the cognitive load from my daily life (work and personal) increased very significantly in Q1 due to a series of things good and bad.

I reached a point in March where I actually said out loud to someone “I can’t take on anything new – my cognitive load is maxed.” I literally couldn’t think about anything beyond what I was currently trying to process. While I’m still at a high load, I don’t feel anywhere near as maxed as I did at the end of March.

In the past 24 hours I’ve responded to a few emails that were particularly tone deaf to reality. The level of aggression in the noise seems unusually high these days. The random hostility from people I don’t know very well, but who feel like it’s an effective personal strategy to attack as a way to get attention, seems at an all time high. I presume some of this is from our current political cycle and the corresponding tone, but I could be coming from other dynamics as well.

Regardless of how zen one is, all of the noise, signal, interactions, and life activity creates a cognitive load. While I’m not sure a macro measure – like the VIX – is useful, I certainly feel like a personal one would be.

  • mbyrne

    Thank you for giving me some of the language I can use to explain what my start up does, and we solve this problem in a completely unexpected way.

  • I’m thinking that there is an AI solution this somewhere….parsing your inbound and outbound emails for language and tone, looking at travel habits – especially those that cross time zones – how much exercise you were getting and maybe even tracking things like credit card spending and debt to income (watch Chris Sacca on Colin Cowherd from a day or two ago re: finances and it clouding your vision). If you were willing to give up enough personal information, I think it would be rather straightforward to create a baseline and then proactively alert when an exception happens with suggestions for something like meditation or the like….hmmm….

  • I wish there was a good way to measure cognitive load in real-time and track it. It would be an awesome tool to help me be productive and at my happiest. A sort of Fitbit for cog load. I’ve looked at this before. There are some papers on cog load and how to measure it. The best way is with a “secondary task”. Occasionally you ask the subject to do some “other thing” and their response time to that is an indicator of cog load. So, for example, in lab tests you can have a subject use some web tool, but then have a little pixel up in the tool bar occasionally turn from green to blue or something and when that happens the subject has to click on it.

    So maybe a wrist band that randomly has one of a few haptic stimuli and for each the wearer has to do something unique in response. Track that over time…

    There’s a business idea in there somewhere for you to fund!

    • I love data and try to measure everything, hence my collection of wearables. I’m on the MS Band 2 now (good, but not well integrated into the ecosphere). However, for ongoing measurements, the lab-based method is far too intrusive and would impact productivity, and I also feel that it would revert to the mean after approximately 6 months after the prefrontal cortex developed pathways to handle it for you without thinking about it.

      Electroencephalography correlated functional magnetic resonance imaging (EEG-fMRI) is the best way to measure the load, assuming that you have a baseline to start with. This also presumes that one could condense the equipment needed for an EEG-fMRI onto a wearable, however it needs to touch your cranium somewhere, and I’m not sure how I’d do that with a wrist band.

      I’m also not sure having magnetic pulses shooting through my brain is long, or even short term health positive. It reminds me too much of Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation (rTMS), which while approved today for treatment of treatment resistant major depressive disorder (trMDD), has been used in the past for emotional dampening of patients, primarily pediatric patients, who were prone to violence. It works, and usually works quite well, but it’s creepy.

      I’d have a hard time funding this, unless another way was found to effectively measure MCI or CLI.

  • awesome idea!

  • Hmmm, how can I create a personal VIX that everyone can see? First joke, then serious. I think that there is a tremendous amount of fear in the world right now. Terrorism, Funding, sales, economy, GDP it’s pretty endless-and there isn’t a lot we can point to for hope (which counters fear)

    If we shut our world down-and become a hermit-it actually becomes worse for us.
    I try to patiently explain exactly what I am feeling to people that want my time. If I am too direct, and I unintentionally offend them I try to apologize to them.

    Empathize with people like you because I can’t imagine what the tidal wave of stuff even looks like!

    • I need a new mood ring …

  • Thinking back to the title, Cognitive Load Indicator, I posit that should it be an overall Mental Capacity Indicator. Cognition is only one that takes mental capacity. Managing stress is another. Managing fear yet another. Being the data geek that I am, I’d love to see a stacked bar graph where each color component is another things impacting one’s mental capacity.

    The problem with Mental Capacity Indicator is branding. I’d forever hear jokes about microwaves aimed at my head.

    • And MCI makes me think of a particular long distance company…

  • James Mitchell

    The solution is so simple. If you have 1000 inputs a day, 950 of them will be garbage. Find a way to get rid of 900 of the inputs, so you’re now down to 100. Of the 100, 50 will be garbage, but 50 percent non-garbage is a lot better than 5 percent non-garbagbe. In the process of of eliminating the 900 inputs, you will lose a gew good ones but that’s life. The price is worth it.

    Email — Have your assistant filter your email. That’s why God made assistants. The routine stuff she can handle herself. The stupid/hostile emails you will never see. For deals that are sent to you, she inputs them into your deal tracking system and she is smart enough to know which of the four of you should see it first.

    Facebook — Total waste of time in that the signal to noise ratio (STNR) is way too low. Get rid of it.

    LinkedIn — Cut back.

    Twitter — Such a waste of time it is uniquely evil. Essentially all noise and almost no signal.

    TV — Generally a waste of time. I’m talking TV shows, not movies you watch at home.

    Comments on blog posts — Generally not worth reading. For your own blog, obviously you want to read them.

    Slack — Useful if you’re in the right groups. I suspect you are in too many groups.

    Txt messages — For me, I don’t get that many each day, so there is no need to filter them.

    Radio — I’ve heard of it, what is it? Seriously, except for listening to music as you drive, why would you want to listen to the radio.

    You are so plugged in that if you miss an input from one channel, if it is important, it will almost certainly recirculate in some other channel and you will see it. You’re not going to miss much by eliminating 900 inputs a day.

    For most people, I tell them to take up the freed-up time by reading books. In your case, I think you read enough books. 😉 I have never met anyone for whom I said, “He reads too many books.”

  • “The random hostility from people I don’t know very well, but who feel like it’s an effective personal strategy to attack as a way to get attention, seems at an all time high.”

    I hope all this turmoil is not going to cause you to have to restrict or close up your open-communication channel, as that would be a shame and a true loss. There’s always some f***ing corn hole who ruins it for everyone else….

    • Don’t worry – it won’t. I’ve had a daily attack in my inbox every day for the past 25 years …

  • I keep one work day a week with no scheduled calls or meetings. I need a full day to process work, email, earlier conversations, etc. If I miss this day during the week, my CLI spikes.

    • Good approach. I now work at home on Friday’s and have been for a while. I have some phone calls, but lots of catch up time (so that Saturday and Sunday don’t end up being catch up time.)

    • panterosa,

      Today’s speed sacrifices necessary mulching. Do less slower?

  • panterosa,

    Psychic drag is what’s caused by cognitive overload. Some form of meditation or mind clearing is an adult response. Play is the child’s response. I’d like to see adults play more. Being playful reduces psychic drag.

    • I haven’t been meditating much this year. I think I’ll start practicing again …

  • Have you tried running “top”? 😉

    Joking aside, negative info takes more energy & effort to process. So even if the communications volume was the same the total load could have been higher. I’ve found strength training exercise and yoga to be the best way to kill “long running processes” of the mind.

  • Samuel Harris

    Love the VIX references! I actually love trading volatility products (like the VIX) because they’re mean-reverting unlike equities.

    I used to be a race-car driving instructor and we talked about the “comfort – fear – panic” zones. If you allow student drivers to stay in their comfort zone, they never get faster. So you have to force them into their fear zone. But you also have to constantly monitor for signs of pushing too far into the panic zone. You are, after all, a passenger in a car going over 150mph!

    I agree it’s important to try and gauge your own CLI, however crudely, in order to keep your engine running fast but not so fast you blow it up. I’ve found two ways to come back from the edge:

    (1) Big Mind Process: Zen meets talk therapy. Your mind is like a company with 1,000+ employees, but none of them know their job description or who their boss is, and whoever shouts the loudest gets to run the company at that moment. The 1,000+ employees are all the people you’ve known in your life and all the books you’ve read and all the roles you play. Every one of those is a voice who talks back to you in your head and it can be cacophonous if not managed like an organization. So the practice is to take a sort of roll call of all the voices: the protector, the controller, the skeptic, etc, and allow each one to speak one by one to voice their concerns. Like a well-run senior staff meeting, this brings a lot more clarity where there was once chaos. After about 10-20 minutes of doing this, you get to a sort of calm, peaceful, but extremely powerful place in your mind that is kind of like the feeling you get when meditation is really working but easier to hold on to instead of having it slip away so fast.

    (2) Binaural Beats: If you look at an EEG of your brain when stressed, you have a lot of beta activity (higher frequencies). If you are in a deeply relaxed state, or sleeping, the predominate activity is at theta or even delta (much lower frequencies). Dr. Gerald Oster found that if you play a 440Hz tone in the left ear and a 446Hz tone in the right ear, after about 15 minutes, an EEG of your brain will actually “hone in” on 6Hz (the difference of the two tones). This works for any frequency difference between 0.5Hz (low delta) up to about 26Hz (high beta). The carrier frequency needs to be below 1kHz… ideally more like 400Hz or even lower. And the volume needs to be pretty low… barely above the threshold of hearing. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of apps you can get in the app store that will play these frequencies in the background behind some nice relaxing music. It’s a way to quickly “tune your brain” to a meditative state. And the cool part is that studies have shown while using binaural beats, amateur meditators achieve similar measurable EEG results as highly practiced meditators (10,000 hrs of practice). The difference being of course they can’t do it without the frequencies playing in their headphones while a truly practiced monk can do it at any time without mechanical assistance. But if you’re not a frequent long-term meditator, it’s a neat hack to jump to the front of the class quickly.


    CTO,, Techstars Chicago ‘15

  • Carlos Jaramillo

    VIX is an example in how trends or people can put people out of their mood, to influence them. In the startup world events like Techcrunch Disrupt give you a sense of what is coming, and in two months you see serious developments around that. I think is the same with the financial world, things like VIX set a trend and the people will follow.

  • Aashay Mody

    Try Headspace (guided meditation app), I find that it’s really helped me deal with heavy loads

  • I love how you describe the overload. I think a strong mental capacity is working at balance 24/7. It is never easy and always far-reaching, at least seemingly, so attitude is very important.