3 cognitive limits we must overcome to think differently

Expertise is the enemy of innovation right? Yes, but even experts can think differently. And, there’s much to learn from them on how they are able to overcome their ‘know-it-all’ tendencies.

Indeed, research into expertise and expert performance explains how great strategists use mental frames to break cognitive barriers that prevent others from seeing new options. It is not just that experts know more about the problem—in fact they often know less—but they think differently. They restructure, reorganize, and refine their representation of knowledge so as to more efficiently apply knowledge to solve problems.

Thinking differently is just a matter of shifting your frame. Of seeing things from a different point of view. But what inhibits us from being able to think differently?

More specifically, what happens inside our minds that limit our capacity to think differently?

According to Paul J Feltovich, Michael J Prietula, K Anders Ericsson there are three limits of human capacity we must overcome to think differently:

  1. We have a limited ability to concentrate. We cannot perceive and pay attention to all of the stimuli we are exposed to—sight, position, time/speed, distance, and spectra/color. This means we must constrain what we pay attention to.
  2. We struggle with limited working memory capacity. Solving a problem requires three actions: (a) we perceive data or information, (b) we bring forward relevant knowledge from our long-term memory into our short-term memory, and (c) we draw inferences about what is going on in order to choose an action or to seek additional data. Since we draw inferences only from what is in our short-term memory, our ability to solve problems is limited by our capacity to hold information there.
  3. We struggle with limited long-term-memory access. We have all experienced being unable to access the relevant long-term memory, such as when something is on the tip of the tongue. We are aware that we know something but cannot retrieve it from long-term memory.

With that said, the next question is: How do we overcome this cognitive limits?

And that will be my next post.

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  • Hi Jorge!

    Great insights! 

    I think that to
    overcome these cognitive limits each one of us must recognize first what their
    limits are and try to find a model that helps or facilitates the resolution of

    We don’t have all
    the same way to relate ideas or relevant aspects of a problem but I think that,
    even though experts, the exchange of ideas with people from other specialties
    can create shortcuts to the solutions.

    differently, that is, consider the problems in an integrated manner can facilitate
    the resolution of more complex problems, because it increases the ability to
    focus, feeds memory and gives speed and processing power. I like the
    approach of integrative




    • Hi Jose,

      I completely agree with you. Being aware of cognitive limits as well as cognitive biases is one of my main concerns. We can overcome them, that’s not the issue. The issue, I believe, is people believe there’s not much they can do to change.

      Thanks for the comment,


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