Working Memory, the Predictor of Learning

04/04/2021 | By More

Working Memory Improves IQ and Attentiveness

Most children are not getting the right kind of memory practice.  Long term memory is improved by tests – rote memorization, but it’s working memory that impacts IQ and learning capability, making it far more important

Working memory is defined by the NIH as the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form. It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving.

If you can hold, interpret and compare more information in your mind at one time, it makes sense that you will be able to think more deeply, leading to thinking associated with a higher IQ.

Furthermore, if you are able to hold more information in your mind, you can follow lectures more easily, understand the plots and flow of books more comfortably – make them more engaging and interesting, and therefore easier to pay attention.

Einstein’s Brain – Is a Good Long Term Memory Harmful?

Einstein is known to have a notoriously poor long term memory, which scientists wonder helped him.  Part of his brilliance was that his mind was not cluttered with rote learned information he didn’t need.

However, a bigger factor in the Einstein story is his working memory. He is thought to have been able to come up all the moving parts in his Theory of Relativity by holding and manipulating them at the same time in his working memory.

Working Memory Practice?

You’d think that given the potency of improvements in working memory to improve attentiveness and IQ that it would be consciously developed at school.

You’d be wrong in that assumption.

Even though working memory is a foundation for learning, if your child does not develop it normally – through listening and reading – it will not develop. And so, it’s not surprising to know that one in 10 students have a low working memory, a gap that will not close without intervention.

Because working memory is foundational skill, it is often diagnosed along with auditory processing disorderdyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD.

This is not a surprise.  If a child has auditory processing delays, working memory development will be hampered through lack of practice – if the language being heard is muddy, it cannot be held in working memory.  Since dyslexia, ADHD-PI and many other learning issues have their source in processing delays, the presence of working memory in their diagnoses is to be expected.

Short Term Memory vs. Working Memory

Working memory used to be called short-term memory, and you even see it used as a synonym. However, there’s a lot more to working memory than just the short-term memory component. They’re all part of executive functioning skills.

Here’s a good definition with handy quantifications, thanks to The Human Memory website. We’ll start with ‘short-term memory’ to associate the topic with that common layperson term:

“Short-term memory acts as a kind of ‘scratch-pad’ for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time, and has been referred to as ‘the brain’s Post-it note’. It is static –  a way to hold and recall small amount of information (typically around 7 items or even less) in mind in an active, readily-available state for a short period of time (typically from 10 to 15 seconds, or sometimes up to a minute).”

(By the way, children tend to hold less than seven items – more like a couple – particularly if they have learning or processing difficulties.)

Active not Static

Meanwhile, working memory is active – information is held and manipulated. It spans auditory memory and visual-spatial memory, which explains this way. They’re like skills you’d use to make a video: “Auditory memory records what you’re hearing while visual-spatial memory captures what you’re seeing.”

But, wait there’s more. To ‘see’ the film again, you’ll need to play it back immediately to access it even while you’re trying to incorporate new information. It can get tricky if you can’t replay that video in your mind (thinking of it as a piece of information nested in your brain) while you’re being bombarded with other information you’re trying to connect to it. If you’re confused by how much information I tried to shove into that sentence, you’ll get a sense of what poor working memory skills are like!

In short, working memory is about recalling and processing relevant information. When you recall information, you’re remembering it in a specific sequence. As for processing, this centres on controlled attention – a cognitive function – that’s linked to processing emotions.

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