The College Brain as a Sponge

Some background

This semester, Fall 2018, is the first semester of my fifth year in college. I am currently working on finishing three majors: Greek, Classical Culture, and Computer Science.

Cognitive resources and mode-switching

As I’ve gotten further into disparate fields, I’ve become convinced that mode-switching is making my academic life harder. The TL;DR is that there is a good reason why most people don’t try combining, say, English and Biochemistry, or Psychology and Astrophysics. It simply demands a level of cognitive focus (to switch back and forth) that is difficult to muster.

This is good to think about, and definitely important to consider before jumping into double or triple majors, but my experience has been that once you get used to dealing with having some of your classes be less connected to each other, you can shift your equilibrium, so to speak, to accommodate a new status quo. Adaptation to environment is something that happens automatically with time and experience – the Steven of today is better at quickly switching between programming in C++ and reading poetry in Greek than the Steven of last year, or even last month.

All this to say, dealing with dissimilar majors is a learnable skill, in my opinion. Perhaps doing this effectively is not easy, but it is also not some insurmountable challenge.

Human capacity for learning… is it finite in a certain context? Bounded by temporary saturation?

Initially I thought that the overall decline in motivation and studying performance that I’ve experienced as I’ve continued to plug away in college could be attributed to me adding more majors and being forced to wear more hats. Once I’d reasoned about the above a bit, however, I decided that I needed a new hypothesis, since it seems unlikely that everything (or even much of anything at all) is attributable to cognitive load from switching tasks due to dissimilar majors. Here’s what I mean:

My first couple years of college, I was a pretty good student. I would read the textbook, go to office hours to ask questions, always pay attention in class, and study regularly. I was never perfect (I still haven’t met a single person in all my years of college who actually studies like 30 minutes a day for all their classes or whatever – what we’re “supposed” to do for maximum learning), but I felt like I was being responsible and industrious.

At this point, however, I find classes much more effortful. My grades have not fallen over the semesters, but I feel like I have a much harder time motivating myself to do tasks, and staying on track once I do start them is a lot more difficult than it used to be. (At least that is what it feels like).

Today, for example, I have been studying for a Greek test I have in a couple days. My brain has turned absolutely ADD; I have found myself unable to stay focused for much more than a couple minutes without going

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I forced myself to sit outside with my Greek book, my translation, and headphones in hopes of removing distractions and actually getting stuff done. But I just ended up watching cars drive by. (?!). Like literally, every five minutes, I’d catch myself looking at cars.

It’s been troubling me lately, this inability to focus when I want to, and also dealing with a general apathy that must always be fought. College didn’t seem to be like this at the beginning, so what’s changed? My working hypothesis is that I’ve simply reached my “college limit” – my brain has simply started to resist further knowledge gained in the university framework.

College is 4 years for a reason

Did you ever wonder why college is typically a 4 year enterprise rather than 3 or 5 (or more)? It would seem that educating people more would be a good thing most of the time – more depth, more breadth, and perhaps even a better appreciation for one’s institution and its community. Yet it is uncommon for most people – even those with multiple majors – to spend much more than four years in undergrad.

Now, if, as I believe, there is a point in college learning where the human brain puts up a white flag and rolls over, grad school presents an interesting data cluster. Many people go on to get a Master’s degree or Ph.D., and seem to get through just fine. (Though not entirely fueled by ideals relating to the advancement of human knowledge: most of the people I’ve talked to with Ph.D.’s have consistently told me that they finished more based on momentum than glowing interest).

But grad school is a different beast in many respects. Coursework is more specialized, and there is a much greater emphasis on reading and writing academic papers (rather than, say, textbooks). Things like MBA programs are also “different” than undergrad in important ways, at least as I understand it. So people that go to grad school are doing 4 years of undergrad plus something else, rather than something explicitly comparable to 6-10+ years of undergrad.

The cause of “Senioritis”

In high school and college both (at least in Georgia?), people tend to call the general lack of motivation and performance in one’s last year “Senioritis.” The popular sentiment seems to be that people lose all motivation when they are about to graduate and move on – that it is the impending momentous life change that cripples performance. But what if this is not the case?

It is interesting to consider the possibility that people might fizzle in their 4th year of high school or college simply because their brain is “done” with that mode of knowledge acquisition – the sponge is full. Completely saturated.

Discussion

I am biased when it comes to this issue. I have a full year of college left (for a total of five and a half years in grade), and I’m already facing burnout issues – facing situations wherein I find myself confronted with a mountain of work and feel like laughing at the futility of it all and then not doing any of it.

It bothers me that I am facing this now after being in college a while. I should be getting better at “playing the game,” not worse… right? Experience should lead to a more efficient use of time, and things should go faster.

To an extent, I have found this to be true. I know my limits better than when I first entered college (e.g., how much I need to study to achieve a certain grade), what sorts of questions professors are likely to ask, what sorts of study methods are effective, etc. I’ve gotten better in some areas.

However, my overall experience as I’m dragging myself into yet another year of college is the sinking feeling that every week is getting more and more difficult – as if I am walking through a field of progressively stickier mud that weighs me down with each additional step. It’s getting harder not easier.

Postulating that one can only handle so much undergrad is a comforting explanation inasmuch as it makes me not morally at fault for my slackening studiousness. But it also seems to explain the paradox of having a harder time of things with more experience, which goes against logic.

At least this is what I tell myself.

 


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