The Brain’s Spam Filter

The June/July 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind includes an article entitled “Your Inner Spam Filter” by Andrew W. McCollough and Edward K. Vogel of the University of Oregon. In it they explain that superior abstract reasoning appears to be related to better use of working memory and that the difference between those who reason effectively and those who don’t might be due to differences in the brain’s ability to filter out information that is not relevant to the task. Research has demonstrated for years that working memory is limited to about four chunks of information at a time. You might be surprised by how little we can hold in working memory, the area in our brains where information is temporarily stored while we’re thinking about something. Better use of working memory’s limited capacity results in better abstract reasoning—the kind of reasoning that handles data analysis. So, the analytical process is improved by the brain’s ability to filter out irrelevant information, a function that works a bit like working memory’s spam filter.

Data analysis software, in an effort to support the process, should eliminate all non-essential content, thereby reducing the need for an analyst’s brain to filter it out. By doing so, good software will help to level the playing field between analysts whose internal spam filters vary in quality. The current trend in data presentation and analysis software to display information using flashy visual effects, such as 3-D charts with lighting effects to make them look photo-realistic, rather than displaying the data alone in simple, clear, and meaningful ways, is working against the needs of analysts. As Edward Tufte wisely wrote in back 1983, “Above all else show the data.”

Take care,


3 Comments on “The Brain’s Spam Filter”

By Rob Meredith. June 8th, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Hi Steve,

An excellent metaphor. Don’t forget that there are multiple sources of ‘analytics spam.’ Even if you present data in a Tufte-esque, visually efficient (and aesthetically effective) way, it doesn’t mean you should. The widespread adoption of data warehouses has created a deluge of data that can be visualised. I’m reminded of a paper by Russell Ackoff from the 1960s that talks about managerial information needs - the need is for better information, not more information. Managers (and analysts) then, as now, are drowning in an oversupply of data. Cutting through the data spam, as well as the chart-junk spam, is an important task that data analysis software needs to support.



By Kevin M. June 11th, 2008 at 5:36 pm

I enjoyed one of Mr. Few’s Webinars today and posted a review at:

By Chris Gerrard. June 20th, 2008 at 6:08 am

There’s extremely strong support here for the argument for simplicity and elegance of design.

It’s trivially easy to overwhelm information consumers with presentations that contain very little data. Designing presentations that convey large amounts of information effectively and efficiently is possible, even if the skills necessary are in short supply and not widely appreciated.

The more we learn about how our brains work the clearer it becomes that the principles of simplicity and clarity in analytic information design really are important in assisting the cognition of data.