Cognitive Threshold Theory

(Also known as Worsham’s Cognitive Threshold Theory).

The theory that our human cognitive ability has thresholds, from the conscious level to a not-as-conscious level, which varies over time in strength.  These thresholds are physical and are not defined, but generally are from those activities and thoughts that are the most active having a threshold that defines our active consciousness, down to those thoughts that are several thresholds away and not seemingly linked to our current awareness.

The concepts behind the theory attempt to bring together areas of knowledge, including the commonly-held beliefs about short-term memory being limited to around 7 ideas.

In an evolutionary sense, humans walk forward and have to plan their next steps.  If humans are running, they may be planning, say, 7 steps ahead.  This planning allows them to avoid having mis-steps.  They have to be able to analyze the results of possibly taking steps, and then keep changing their focus after taking a new step forward.

In theory, people are imperfectly able to keep focus on a small set of priorities.  This imperfection may be the solution, though, for allowing new priorities to be considered.

An example is if when shopping in a market holding a red scarf you like, someone yells from behind you “Stop that thief!  Help!”  You start to turn around. Your cognitive threshold will swap out your interest in scarves for an interest in this new distraction.  You may:

  • want to see the thief to avoid them
  • want to see the person yelling to verify they are not joking
  • want to see if you are near the thief, or possibly in danger

If the thief runs at you and you run away for a few seconds until he is gone, you may find yourself a minute later holding a scarf that you took from the vendor.  Your threshold to remember the scarf went from “active” to “standby”, until you were reminded by the feeling of the scarf in your hand.

In other words, our cognitive and analytical threshold allows us to act in our world and react for what could be labeled as basic evolutionary needs.

The cognitive threshold changes over time, for reasons including:

  • mental capacity: fatigue, chemical or emotional impairment/enhancement
  • situational: the ability to think about running is higher when actually running, than when performing some other activity
  • training: learning enhances ability to manage and perform more in those areas being learned, such as language, music, sports, science, and other skills

The Cognitive Threshold theory assumes that what is referred to as “unconscious” or “subconscious” thinking is essentially thoughts that take place at a different level of awareness.

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