My journey to bandwidth research included an overwhelming graduate program, a bunch of people in a research study who were struggling to live healthier, and a mentor who encouraged me even though I was thinking pretty far outside of the box.
Last year I was presenting about bandwidth at a community college in Pennsylvania, and one of the audience members—a physics professor—said, “Wait, what do you mean by bandwidth? Because I think of bandwidth in terms of the frequency of a signal. I don’t see how this relates to that.”
This question was not surprising, although it did make me wonder if I needed to brush up on my presentation planning… But it certainly wasn’t uncommon for someone to be confused by my use of the word bandwidth to refer to human brain resources rather than unfamiliar physics concepts or internet service.
When I talk about “mental bandwidth,” I’m referring to the extremely limited amount of conscious cognitive brain processing resources available to accomplish tasks at hand. I can’t take credit for calling this concept “bandwidth.” In 2013, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir published the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, and they used the term “mental bandwidth” as follows:
In 2016, my research collaborator, Dr. Cia Verschelden, was reading Scarcity, and it was she who brought the term into our conversations. She tried it out when she shared her work and found that it really resonated with others, so we started using it jointly in our scholarship of teaching and learning work.
I had been studying bandwidth for a while by then, since 2009 when I started my research for my doctoral dissertation. At that point I called it “attentional resources” or “conscious processing resources,” as those were the terms most used in the neuropsychology literature I was studying. And at that point, as a Public Health student, I was trying to better understand how limitations in bandwidth might affect people’s abilities to change their health behaviors, like healthy eating and physical activity.
After a few years of serving as a research project coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, I had begun to look into bandwidth limitations as a possible explanation for why some of the participants in our lifestyle change research studies were less successful than others. The program we were researching was designed to the reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and involved an online program with lessons, health coaching, and tracking of food, physical activity, and weight.
I was often responsible for calling the “difficult” participants who had stopped logging in to the program or coming to their research visits. When I finally reached them on the phone, they would often explain the challenges that they were facing with lifestyle change—care-giving for an elderly parent, working in jobs with excessive and unpredictable hours, making meals for others in the household who weren’t trying to eat healthy, or managing complicated chronic health conditions.
What I noted was that they seemed as motivated and willing to work hard as the participants who were being successful with and consistently using the program. The problem seemed to be that they were mentally exhausted from the parts of their lives that were unpredictable and out of their direct control.
At the time I was working 50+ hours a week in my research job, being an almost full-time student in a doctoral program, and dealing with my own complicated health issues. I could understand what might be making things so challenging for them, because it seemed like the same thing that was making things so challenging for me. I felt like I didn’t have the mental capacity to keep track of all the different pieces of all the different parts of my life.
I could do two things well at a time—my job and my degree, or my health and my job. But I couldn’t seem to find a way to do all three at once. And I felt like my brain kept holding me back. Even when I had time to work, I couldn’t pull together the focus or clarity of thought to make progress on the tasks at hand. So I started to wonder—what amount of “brain resources” were required for the things that I was trying to do, or trying to get our participants to do.
I found an article by researcher Deborah Cohen--"Eating as an Automatic Behavior”—that tied my interest in brain demands to my passion for public health. My subsequent dive into psychology, neuropsychology, cognitive science, and health behavior research fascinated me. I connected with faculty at the university who were outside of School of Public Health and interrogated them about how to design cognitive response-time tests that I could use with the participants in our research study.
In 2012, I completed my doctorate with a dissertation that focused on how mental bandwidth affected the success and participation of different individuals in a weight loss program. I can admit that my results fell short of being ground-breaking, but it was only the start of my interest in the topic.
Now, I have extended my bandwidth work into domains beyond health behavior—public health, higher education, social equity, workplace productivity, etc—and have used my understanding of bandwidth to design and recommend strategies for improving success in these domains, as well as to understand the impacts of different types of public policy.
Through this website and blog, I hope to connect more people to this concept, to provide opportunities for others to benefit from the bandwidth perspective, and to learn more about other perspectives that can expand the impact of this work.
I look forward to working with you!
- Dr. Tina D Bhargava