kitchen table math, the sequel: working memory

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

working memory

Just came across this textbook chapter on working memory and thought I'd share it. Don't know who wrote it.

Bielock writes that "working-memory differences across people account for between 50 percent to 70 percent of individual differences in abstract reasoning ability or fluid intelligence."

Working memory also makes you dumber in some situations.

I'll get to that later.

Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To


Allison said...

Here's what I don't get:

the greatest asset to working memory is paper and pencil.

Everyone has access to those. Want to increase your working memory? Write things down.

Why are paper and pencil not accounted for somehow? How does one compare artificial tests where people are forbidden from using paper and pencil with reality where they can? How do you compare results of someone who knows to write things down and someone who tries to keep it all in their head?

Anonymous said...


The chapter is from "Cognitive Psychology: Mind and Brain". Here's a link to the book on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

True, Allison. And this is why the claim that listening to a lecture is a passive form of learning where all that happens is that meaningliess isolated facts are supposed to be pointlessly memorized. When used as intended, lectures require the listener to grapple with the material as it is presented, make it her or his own as s/he decides how to transfer it to paper, and build an internal understanding of the overall topic of the day. Hardly passive, and only amounting to a collection of random facts if the listener is making no attempt to incorporate the material into her/his previous body of knowledge on the subject as s/he listens and writes notes.

Catherine Johnson said...

Why are paper and pencil not accounted for somehow?

Paper and pencil aren't a substitute for working memory.

Working memory means being able to hold content inside consciousness while ALSO manipulating that content. That is the critical factor: you are doing something with the content you're holding in conscious memory.

That's why Google can't substitute for memory. If I'm writing a passage about serotonin and dopamine, say, I can look up 10 papers on dopamine and serotonin and open them all up on my desktop.

But until I am able to use working memory to summon the critical content in those 10 papers into consciousness & then hold it there while I figure out what I want to write, I can't write.

Knowledge on paper or knowledge on Google isn't knowledge I can transform into something new -- or even into something not new but clear.

(Working memory also involves retrieval -- finding the knowledge you need inside long-term memory. There are attention and focus components that I don't understand as well at this point.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous - thank you!

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, the fact that pencil and paper are no substitute for working memory is a lesson I've had to learn and re-learn; I wish it weren't so.

Every time I undertake a writing project in a field I know very little about, I start out thinking I'll take a lot of notes and then write from my notes.

It doesn't work that way.

Most of my notes have to go inside long-term memory; that's the only 'real' way working memory can access the material and work with it.

I can't just scan a page of notes, pull it all into working memory for a few minutes, make something of it, and then forget it.

Allison said...

--Most of my notes have to go inside long-term memory; that's the only 'real' way working memory can access the material and work with it.

Right--you've CHUNKED. But chunking is what we do so we don't have to use working memory.

See my comment on the other thread. People are confusing the role of working memory with the role of chunking it seems.

I totally disagree with your claim that paper and pen don't substitute for working memory. Paper and pencil ARE substitutes for working memory. That's why we write down orders when we wait tables, or make lists for the grocery store, or need to keep track of a phone number. Working memory exercises like cogmed specifically work on the stuff you could handle b y writing things down. and the stuff we write down in the above cases are largely abstraction/structure free.

What paper and pencil aren't substitutes for is creating the structures we need for chunking. So you have to keep working with paper and pencil over and over, doing the problems by writing them out, over and over, until you've chunked the concepts, because it's in doing them over and over that you create the structure and abstractions that allow you to free up working memory. Chunking doesn't mean you've got more working memory than someone else or you earlier. It means you've offlined things so you aren't taxing your working memory so much, which is far more efficient than just increasing the mental chalkboard that is working memory.