We all like simple solutions. However much we may believe we are ‘above’ black-&-white dichotomies, that of course we understand that every situation is complex, nevertheless we have a brain that can only think of a very very few things at once. So it's unsurprising that we are drawn to solutions that can be summed up simply, that can fit comfortably within the limitations of working memory.

One of my perennial themes is the importance of practice, and in the context of developing expertise, I have talked of ‘deliberate practice’ (a concept articulated by the well-known expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson). A new paper in the journal Psychology of Music reports on an interesting study that shows how the attributes of music practice change as music students develop in expertise. Music is probably the most studied domain in expertise research, but I think we can gain some general insight from this analysis. Here’s a summary of the findings.

[Some details about the U.K. study for those interested: the self-report study involved 3,325 children aged 6-19, ranging from beginner to Grade 8 level, covering a variety of instruments, with violin the most common at 28%, and coming from a variety of musical settings: junior conservatoires, youth orchestras, Saturday music schools, comprehensive schools.]

I don't often talk about eyewitness testimony, but it's not because of the lack of research. It's a big field, with a lot of research done. When  I say I don't follow it because I regard the main finding as a done deal - eyewitness testimony is useless - that's not meant to denigrate the work being done. There is, clearly, a great deal of value in working out the exact parameters of human failures, and in working out how we can improve eyewitness testimony. I just arbitrarily decided to ignore this area of research until they'd sorted it all out! (I can't follow everything, I'm swamped as it is!)

I'd like to dwell a little on the comment I made in my recent brief post, regarding the balance between your awareness of the fallibility of human memory and your belief in your own abilities. Some examples should help clarify what I mean.

Let's think of that all-too-common scenario, forgetting whether or not you have done something. Now, you could berate yourself with how forgetful you are getting, and see this as a sign of getting older, or of impending Alzheimer's, or (if you're still quite young), simply of your generally terrible memory. Or, aware of how memory works, you could say to yourself, I should have been paying attention, I know perfectly well that actions I do regularly are hard to keep track of. Perhaps I should start using some sort of external sign to mark when I've done the thing.

The thing to remember about Ericsson’s famous expertise research, showing us the vital importance of deliberate practice in making an expert, is that it was challenging the long-dominant view that natural-born talent is all-important. But Gladwell’s popularizing of Ericsson’s “10,000 hours” overstates the case, and of course people are only too keen to believe that any height is achievable if you just work hard enough.

The much more believable story is that, yes, practice is vital — a great deal of the right sort of practice — but we can’t disavow “natural” abilities entirely.

A fascinating article recently appeared in the Guardian, about a woman who found a way to overcome a very particular type of learning disability and has apparently helped a great many children since.

Because it holds some personal resonance for me, my recent round-up of genetic news called to mind food allergies. Now food allergies can be tricky beasts to diagnose, and the reason is, they’re interactive. Maybe you can eat a food one day and everything’s fine; another day, you break out in hives. This is not simply a matter of the amount you have eaten, the situation is more complex than that. It’s a function of what we might call total allergic load — all the things you might be sensitive to (some of which you may not realize, because on their own, in the quantities you normally consume, they’re no or little problem). And then there are other factors which make you more sensitive, such as time of month (for women), and time of day. Perhaps, in light of the recent findings about the effects of environmental temperature on multiple sclerosis, temperature is another of those factors. And so on.

In a recent news report, I talked about a study of older adults that found that their sense of control over their lives fluctuates significantly over the course of a day, and that this impacts on their cognitive abilities, including reasoning and memory. ‘Sense of control’ — a person’s feeling that they are (or are not) in control of their life — is an attribute that includes perceived competence, as well as locus of control (you can take a Locus of Control Test here, if you’re interested), and in general it tends to decline in older adults. But obviously it is an attribute that, across the board, varies dramatically between individuals.

Our society gives a lot of weight to intelligence. Academics may have been arguing for a hundred years over what, exactly, intelligence is, but ‘everyone knows’ what it means to be smart, and who is smart and who is not — right?

Of course, it’s not that simple, and the ins and outs of academic research have much to teach us about the nature of intelligence and its importance, even if they still haven’t got it all totally sorted yet. Today I want to talk about one particular aspect: how important intelligence is in academic success.

The limitations of working memory have implications for all of us. The challenges that come from having a low working memory capacity are not only relevant for particular individuals, but also for almost all of us at some points of our lives. Because working memory capacity has a natural cycle — in childhood it grows with age; in old age it begins to shrink. So the problems that come with a low working memory capacity, and strategies for dealing with it, are ones that all of us need to be aware of.

Today, I want to talk a little about the effect of low working memory capacity on reading comprehension.

A recent study involving 400 University of Alberta students found that 5% of them had reading comprehension difficulties. Now the interesting thing about this is that these were not conventionally poor readers. They could read perfectly well. Their problem lay in making sense of what they were reading. Not because they didn’t understand the words or the meaning of the text. Because they had trouble remembering what they had read earlier.


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