Cognitive Bandwidth

“Cognitive bandwidth” is a term you may not have heard but a concept that makes sense from the minute you encounter it. We all know that referring a seriously depressed patient for “talking” therapy is probably not going to be very useful. In severe depression, and severe anxiety for that matter, concentration and focus are sufficiently impaired that any attempt to try to think differently, (as cognitive behavioural therapy requires) is fairly futile.

If you need help, please call

  • Lifeline- 13 11 14
  • BeyondBlue - 1300 22 4636
  • Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Suicide Call Back Service Online Chat

“Cognitive bandwidth” is a term you may not have heard but a concept that makes sense from the minute you encounter it.

We all know that referring a seriously depressed patient for “talking” therapy is probably not going to be very useful. In severe depression, and severe anxiety for that matter, concentration and focus are sufficiently impaired that any attempt to try to think differently, (as cognitive behavioural therapy requires) is fairly futile.

A recent article from Pacific Standard magazine about behavioural economics (of all things) dropped the notion of “reduced cognitive bandwidth” into my universe and it chimed loudly, as ideas do when they make immediate sense.

The article focuses on the effect of poverty on our ability to think clearly and rationally. It also mentions a lot of other very important things that, when they are scarce, can reduce our ability to think flexibly and creatively and impair our problem solving skills - in other words, that can narrow our cognitive bandwidth. Interestingly these things include time, food and sleep.

In 2013 two academics, one a behavioural psychologist and the other an economist, published a book called “Scarcity: Why having too little means so much”.   One of the book’s authors, Eldar Shafir, (the psychologist) gives a TED talk about the research that supports the idea that in conditions of scarcity of either of money or time, cognitive bandwidth and problem solving skills decline. Scarcity creates a similar psychology for everyone, a psychology that contributes to positive reinforcement cycles where things get worse rather than better.

How does knowing all this help us help our patients with common mental health conditions?

Perhaps it helps us to understand what drives our patients to make the decisions they do and why the very rational solutions we present them with do not seem to be possible for them.

Perhaps it can help us help them negotiate their difficulties better by focusing on simple manageable changes that will help them turn things around, rather than expecting too much of them all at once. 

Perhaps too, it will make us recognise how the pressures we experience in our own lives may impair our thinking. Maybe we too need to take more urgent action than we think to improve the balance of our lives and address our own “scarcities”.

{{commentCount}} comment(s). You must be logged in and AHPRA verified to view and comment. Login here.

Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

The latest healthcare news from medcast

What’s your COVID number? A simple way to keep everyone safe and comfortable
What’s your COVID number? A simple way to keep everyone safe and comfortable

A friend mentioned a really great way for managing this which I have been using and sharing with others. As people are going to have different comfort levels when it comes to spending time together, she told me about sharing her COVID social comfo...

Being Well in Difficult Times - Talah
Being Well in Difficult Times - Talah

It’s always helpful to hear how other people cope.  Over the next few weeks we are dedicating the Being Well blog to a series called Being Well in Difficult Times.  In this blog post we speak to Talah - a a Gumbaynggirr/Yaegl young person who shar...

We’re listening at last to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voices in Mental Health
We’re listening at last to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voices in Mental Health

Whilst significant progress has been made in incorporating these voices generally, there is a call for diversity in these Lived Experience voices, namely Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lived Experience.

Being Well in Difficult Times- Zoe
Being Well in Difficult Times- Zoe

Zoe is a registered nurse working in theatres. She has elderly parents and a young son. How is she staying so positive in the face of CoVID-19?

Eating Disorders in Adults: Assessment & Treatment Options
Eating Disorders in Adults: Assessment & Treatment Options

Eating disorders, broadly defined by disturbances in eating behaviour and distress centred on food, eating, and body image, affect nearly one million Australians. This blog covers the assessment and treatment options for various conditions.

Being Well in Difficult Times - Gordon
Being Well in Difficult Times - Gordon

Gordon* is a thirty something rural proceduralist GP. Gordon contributed to the national guidelines for the management of COVID-19. Would being in his shoes change your thinking about the pandemic?

Being Well in Difficult Times - Sally
Being Well in Difficult Times - Sally

Sally* is the director of new urban private practice. She is a generalist psychologist & qualified teacher in her mid-forties with two ‘tween girls, and vulnerable (but fit) parents. Her clients include young children, teenagers, university studen...

Being Well in Difficult Times - Margot
Being Well in Difficult Times - Margot

It’s always helpful to hear how other people cope with life's challenges. Over the next few weeks we are dedicating the Being Well blog to a series called Being Well in Difficult Times. We've asked a range of health professionals 3 big questions t...

Being Well in Difficult Times- Elizabeth
Being Well in Difficult Times- Elizabeth

How would you feel if you were pregnant right now? It would probably add a whole other dimension to your concern. What if, to add to the puzzle, your work made you responsible for the mental health of others? Elizabeth* is a thirty-something s...

Being Well in Difficult Times - Dr Vered Gordon
Being Well in Difficult Times - Dr Vered Gordon

Dr Vered Gordon is a GP in Sydney’s Northern Beaches with a special interest in perinatal mental health. For more than a decade Vered developed Black Dog Institute’s highly regarded Professional Education workshops.

Being Well in Difficult Times- Michael Kidd
Being Well in Difficult Times- Michael Kidd

It’s always helpful to hear how other people cope with life's challenges. Over the next few weeks we are dedicating the Being Well blog to a series called Being Well in Difficult Times. Michael's CoVID-19 job responsibilities are huge and his...

Communication in the time of COVID-19
Communication in the time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive, and almost overnight, transformation in Australian general practice, most notably with the rapid rise in telehealth. What does effective communication via telehealth look like?

KISS - COVID-19 Primary Care Assessment & Management
KISS - COVID-19 Primary Care Assessment & Management

This Keep It Simple Summary (KISS) covers the treatment and management of COVID-19 in the Primary Care environment. Stages of the disease will be explained, followed by a succinct summary risk factors, symptoms, complications, treatment, respirato...

Reframing Isolation
Reframing Isolation

I keep wondering about what we can learn from all these people who live in isolation or confinement. What strategies were put in place and what might the long-term impact of their isolation have been?

Non-drug Approaches to Chronic Pain Management
Non-drug Approaches to Chronic Pain Management

Living with chronic pain is a complex health issue that affects over 3.2 million Australians, with close to 68% of those affected being of working age. As we know, chronic pain can have significant implications on daily functions and quality of l...

Telehealth: How does it work In Practice
Telehealth: How does it work In Practice

We are all starting to do telehealth in the current climate to protect us, our staff and our patients. Many of us feel slightly out of our depth. Here are some quick tips to help you in your practice.

COVID-19 and Us
COVID-19 and Us

Have you thought about what these measures are going to mean for you personally? Even if we avoid the need for self-isolation, we will all need to practice social distancing for possibly 6-12 months until we can all be vaccinated, or until we have...

Telehealth and COVID-19 Update
Telehealth and COVID-19 Update

As the number of cases of COVID-19 increases exponentially in Australia many of us will be exploring the new telehealth item numbers. The information on these seem to be changing daily, but currently these are the key things to know.

Coronavirus
Coronavirus

Since the start of 2020, coronavirus has hit the world and caused unprecedented levels of concern among public and health professionals alike.

Oropharyngeal Airways in Paediatric Patients
Oropharyngeal Airways in Paediatric Patients

Oropharyngeal airways (OPAs) have some additional considerations when utilising in paediatric patients, to ensure safe use in children.

Join Medcast. It's free and you'll get instant access to essential healthcare news, research and more.

Already a member? Sign-in