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We Think Hopkins Needs to Rethink How We Do Our Thinking

Aerin O’Brien ’26 Op/Ed Assistant Editor
Recently, I was watching an episode of “Grey's Anatomy” where the interns were learning how to triage patients in a mass casualty event.
Recently, I was watching an episode of “Grey's Anatomy” where the interns were learning how to triage patients in a mass casualty event. Doctors have to decide which patients get treated first (those who have a higher chance of survival) and which get left untreated due to lack of time and resources.

As I watched, I realized that some weeks at Hopkins feel like these mass casualty events with papers, projects, and tests flooding my planner like the patients flooding the emergency room of my mental bandwidth. Take this recent example: The Atlantic Communities II research paper came in with a massive heart attack. I had trained for this: I’d done months of research, composed a strong thesis statement, and assembled a solid outline.
Just as I was ready to lock in, a “Macbeth” essay turned up with a stab wound and demanded my attention. As I tried to neatly stitch up the wound, I could not stop myself from thinking about the research paper on life support in the other room. Then a chemistry test showed up with second-degree burns, a math test with appendicitis, and a Shakespearean sonnet with a broken arm, all within the same week, each demanding my attention and preventing me from attending to the research paper.

As with the doctors in “Grey’s,” I know I can’t save everyone. But I wonder: Why does it have to be this way? Does Hopkins want me to learn how to survive in crisis mode, or does it want me to write the best term paper I am capable of writing? It seems that, by demanding that we constantly multitask, Hopkins is hindering our capacity to think and forcing us to turn in work that leaves us feeling disappointed and dissatisfied.

Neuroscientists and psychologists agree that multitasking, or performing more than one task at once, results in a reduced quality of work, increased stress and anxiety, and less learning engagement. According to the American Psychological  Association, performing more than one complex task at a time can lead to reduced productivity due to an increase in the cognitive load on the brain. Research further revealed that load significantly increases when the tasks are too similar. Simply put: Asking the same areas of the brain to switch from one task to another increases brain interference and results in more mistakes and less engagement with the material. Not surprisingly, psychologists who measured the effects of multitasking and increased cognitive load on patients’ brain activity, heart rate, and general sense of satisfaction and well-being, found that their heart rates increased, followed by their levels of stress and anxiety due to mental fatigue and the resulting errors.

Teachers and school administrators could easily make my cognitive load mass casualty meltdown can teach us how to manage our time, prioritize tasks, and improve our executive functioning. After all, we will need these skills in college and in life. Psychologists, however, uphold that there is a simple way to avoid overburdening students with too much cognitive load in the first place: decreasing “switch cost.”

As Anne Borges points out in her recent New York Times story, cognitive load can be reduced by assigning tasks that make the different parts of our brain cooperate rather than compete. For example, in my mass casualty scenario, the term paper was competing with the “Macbeth” paper, the chemistry lab report, all of which were asking my brain to perform a similar task: collect data, analyze it, and draw conclusions. Though
the subject matter varied across subject, the demands placed upon my cognition — writing, analysis, and synthesis — drew on the same, already overburdened neural pathways.

The chemistry and math tests, on the other hand tests required a different part of my brain to engage and did not interfere with the writing (though, it could be argued, the similarity of those assignments resulted in cognitive strain in the parts of my brain responsible for quantitative reasoning). Accordingly, it would make sense, for example, to limit big writing projects to one at a time. This would greatly reduce “triage” situations in which spiraling, compounding circumstances push students into panic mode. More time and “space” for students to consider their arguments and analysis would, in turn, result in stronger work that better represented students’ ideas and potential.

For a possible real-world application of this, look no further than the history research paper, a Hopkins tradition that is both dreaded and revered. Since the paper’s deadline is known ahead of time, teachers across departments, and in particular the humanities, could work to stagger due dates, thereby reducing students’ cognitive loads and corresponding stress levels.

Hopkins can and should do more to help students feel less anxious and more satisfied with the quality of their work. Brain science supports this.
Editor in Chief 
Asher Joseph

Managing Editor 
Margaret Russell

Claire Billings
Jo Reymond
Rose Porosoff
Eric Roberts
Abby Rakotomavo
Elona Spiewak
Veena Scholand
Miriam Levin
Liliana Dumas
Saisha Ghai
Olivia Yu
Anya Mahajan
Rain Zeng
Winter Szarabajka
Aerin O'Brien

Karun Srihari
Samantha Bernstein
Hana Beauregard
Micah Betts
Elaina Paktuka
Edel Lee
Anjali van Bladel
Nate Gerber
Rebecca Li

Hailey Willey
Web Editors
Amelia Hudonogov-Foster
Anvi Pathak
Chloe Wang

Faculty Advisers
Stephen May
Elizabeth Gleason
Shanti Madison
The Razor's Edge reflects the opinion of 4/5 of the editorial board and will not be signed. The Razor welcomes letters to the editor but reserves the right to decide which letters to publish, and to edit letters for space reasons. Unsigned letters will not be published, but names may be withheld on request. Letters are subject to the same libel laws as articles. The views expressed in letters are not necessarily those of the editorial board.
The Razor,
 an open forum publication, is published monthly during the school year by students of: 
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