Overload (Seven Slots, Part 2)

When we push our working memory too far, things go wrong.

I’ve always been into tech and gadgets.

When I moved into my first proper apartment, I went a little nuts on the tech.

I got a big TV unit, Xbox consoles (One and 360), media server, PS3. I think I even set up my old Super Nintendo. Various other boxes and drives.

Near the computer, I had my guitar amplifier, keyboards, all my sound recording gear, modem, router. Plus some lights.

I rarely used most of these devices. They just sat there plugged in, on standby, chewing up power.

(These days I have a much more restrained relationship with technology. But I was barely in my 20s then, and this seemed like a main perk of being an adult!)

The problem with all of this was not really the money that I spent on it. It was more that it was all running out of one powerpoint in the wall.

That’s a lot of electricity for one plug. And this was an old building, the wiring probably not up to modern standards.

Electrical circuits can take a bit of punishment. They’ll supply power to device after device after device. Eventually though, they reach their limit. The lights flicker. Things get hot to the touch. These are warning signs that your teetering on the edge of an overload.

Then you plug in just one more thing. (The electrical equivalent of “It’s wafer thin”. If you know, you know.)

And the whole thing shuts off immediately. Perhaps accompanied by a “pop!” and a faint smell of smoke.

One moment, everything has power. The next, nothing does.

This is what we think of when we read the word “overload”. We go beyond some limit, and the whole thing shuts down, often in explosive fashion.

An overload in our brain happens a little differently. When we push beyond our limit, we don’t lose everything at once. Our brains automatically decide which things need “power” the most, and protects those things.

As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “the response to mental overload is selective and precise: (our brain) protects the most important activity, so it receives the attention it needs; spare capacity is allocated second by second to other tasks.”

It wouldn’t make evolutionary sense for the human mind to lose everything from working memory at once. So our brains developed to selectively recycle less important slots.

How does our brain identify what is and isn’t important? By checking where our attention is going.

If we’re focused on something, our brains prioritize the slots related to that thing.

Which means anything we’re not directly focused on could be recycled. This causes problems in our Chess.

Let’s say you’re on a big kingside attack. You sense it’s going to be crushing, and you’re just trying to find exactly how to do it.

Your attention is pointed at your opponent’s kingside, trying to find the path to checkmate. Your brain prioritizes the slots directly relevant to that goal.

It uses 2 slots to hold your pieces involved in the attack. Another 2 slots to hold your opponent’s kingside in your mind. You use another 2 slots for calculating and planning your attack. And lastly a slot to keep yourself calm with victory so close.

That’s 7 slots right there.

Do you notice what’s missing? I didn’t mention your opponent’s queenside at all. Your brain recycled that slot to make room for you calculations!

Using the information you’re holding in your slots, you decide on the best move: Qg4!

It threatens mate on g7, and will cause Black’s kingside defenses to scramble. Great!

And it would be a great move, if it weren’t for one thing. The queenside bishop on c8.

Qg4, Bxg4, resigns.

Your attention was elsewhere, your slots used up thinking through your attack, and you literally forgot the bishop existed.

This is what we call “tunnel vision” in Chess. It’s one of the most common kinds of overload. You’ve definitely experienced it, especially under time pressure.

There are many more kinds.

If all your attention is pointed at trying to track a complex position, you may find it difficult to think. All your slots are full of information, none left for making a plan, so you feel paralyzed.

If you realize you’re in a winning position against a much stronger player, your attention may shift to keeping yourself calm and focused. This takes slots away from other things, and raises your chances of blundering the game away.

Every new slot we use recycles a slot from something else.

Our seven slots can only handle so much. They are the key mental resource we need to manage in a Chess game. We must always be aware of this resource, and watching for moments where we may be overloaded.

Start building your awareness by analyzing your games. When you find a mistake, ask yourself: “Was this a Chess error, or a slots error?”

Chess errors are the mistakes we make when we felt clear but made a bad choice. They could be opening prep mistakes, or positional miscalculations. Or a surprise resource from our opponent, or a misevaluation of the position. We tend to feel ok about these mistakes, find it easier to see them as learning opportunities.

Slots errors are the mistakes that most surprise and annoy you. Maybe your calculations got foggy, or you forgot about that bishop, or you froze up and couldn’t think. Maybe you got overconfident, or tilted. These are the mistakes that hurt the most, because we think “we should be better than this by now”.

Notice the sorts of mistakes you make when you overload. When do they occur? Take a guess how your seven slots were being used up at the time.

As with anything we attempt to change, awareness is the first stage.

Once we’re aware, we can work to avoid our overloads. We have two levers we can pull for this.

We can make each of our slots more efficient, so we hold more information in each one. Or we can build our attention control, to better direct how those slots are used.

We should do both. The rest of this series will show you how.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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