working memory

Finding the right strategy through perception and physical movement

I talk a lot about how working memory constrains what we can process and remember, but there’s another side to this — long-term memory acts on working memory. That is, indeed, the best way of ‘improving’ your working memory — by organizing and strengthening your long-term memory codes in such a way that large networks of relevant material are readily accessible.

Oddly enough, one of the best ways of watching the effect of long-term memory on working memory is through perception.

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Gesturing to improve memory, language & thought

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

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Effect of working memory capacity on new language learning

  • Vocabulary acquisition in children is significantly affected by the child's ability to repeat back words.
  • This limitation becomes less as the individual gains a large vocabulary, and thus develops a greater ability to make semantic (meaningful) associations.
  • When learning a new language, your ability to repeat back unfamiliar words is only a factor where you are unable to form a meaningful association to a familiar word.
  • In such cases, the keyword mnemonic can be especially useful to those with limited ability to repeat back words.

Research with children has demonstrated that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span - specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called "phonological short-term memory". The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words appears to continue into adolescence.

But, as you grow in experience, building a vocabulary, this constraint becomes less important. Because working memory capacity is measured in "chunks" - and the amount of information contained in a chunk is extremely malleable. To a large extent, developing chunking strategies is what memory improvement is all about.

In terms of learning another language, there are essentially four possible classes of word:

  • words that are already familiar because they are the same in your native language (or another known language)
  • words that are already familiar because they involve words that you already know in that language (e.g., learning a related verb form, or learning a word made up of two words you already know, such as sweat-shirt)
  • words that resemble a known word with similar or related meaning (e.g., Russian garlo means throat, and the word garlo resembles the word gargle)
  • words that have no ready association to known words

It appears that in these first three cases, the size of your phonological short-term memory is of no significant relevance. It is only in the last case - where the word cannot utilize any meaningful associations - that your phonological short-term memory capacity becomes important.

Fairly obviously, as your knowledge of language (your own and others) grows, the more meaningful associations you will be able to make, and the fewer new words will fall into this last, difficult, category.

This suggests, of course, the usefulness of a mnemonic strategy (specifically, the keyword strategy) in the last, difficult case.

The importance of phonological short-term memory is also greater for productive learning (learning to produce a language, i.e., speak or write it) than in receptive learning (learning to read or understand a language). For productive learning, the pronounceability of the new words is very important. The more easily pronounced, the more easily learnt.

References: 

  • Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ellis, N.C. & Beaton, A. 1993. Factors affecting foreign language vocabulary: imagery keyword mediators and phonological short-term memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46A, 533-58.
  • Papagno, C., Valentine, T. & Baddeley, A. 1991. Phonological short-term memory and foreign-language vocabulary learning. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 331-47.

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Short-Term Memory Problems

  • Short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.
  • Attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.
  • You need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.
  • Many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

Many people, particularly as they get older, have concerns about short-term memory problems: going to another room to do something and then forgetting why you’re there; deciding to do something, becoming distracted by another task, and then forgetting the original intention; uncertainty about whether you have just performed a routine task; forgetting things you’ve said or done seconds after having said or done them; thinking of something you want to say during a conversation, then forgetting what it was by the time it’s your turn to speak, and so on.

This is clearly an issue for many of us. Part of the reason, I believe, is simply that we expect too much from ourselves. For example, research has shown that even a very, very short delay between recalling an intention and being able to carry it out is sufficient to dramatically reduce the likelihood that you will remember to do the intended action — we are talking about a delay of only 10 seconds!

The problem is exacerbated by age (I’m not talking about advanced age — I’m afraid certain aspects of cognitive processing begin to decline as early as the 30s).

Part of the problem is also that we tend to believe that we don’t need to do anything to maintain a thought, particularly when it has “popped” into our minds easily. But current estimates are that unrehearsed information lingers in working memory for less than two seconds!

Some of these problems are dealt with in my article on action slips (these problems are not, strictly speaking, a failure of memory, but a failure in attention), and in my e-book on Remembering intentions.

But in this article I want to talk about another aspect: the relationship between working memory, and attention (and, as it happens, intelligence!).

In my article on working memory and intelligence I talk about the difference between crystallized and fluid intelligence — that fluid intelligence is probably a better measure of what we think of as “intelligence”, and that working memory capacity is often used synonymously with fluid intelligence. A new theory is that the relationship between working memory and fluid intelligence is due to the ability to control attention.

This theory emphasizes the role of attention in keeping information active (i.e. in working memory), and argues that working memory capacity is not, as usually thought, about the number of items or amount of information that can be held at one time. Instead, it reflects the extent to which a person can control attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information / demands.

I have to say that this makes an awful lot of sense to me. I can’t, in the space I have here, go into all the evidence for and against the theory, but here’s one situation which is interesting. The “cocktail party phenomenon” is a well-known method in psychology, whereby people are given two streams of audio, one for each ear, and instructed to listen only to one. At some point, the person’s name is spoken into the unattended stream, and about a third of people pick that up. In a recent take of that classic study, researchers compared the performance of people as a function of their working memory capacity. Only 20% of those with a high capacity heard their name in the unattended channel compared to 65% of low-capacity people. The point being that a critical aspect of good attentional control is the ability to block our irrelevant information.

This ability is one that we already know is worsened by increasing age.

The message from all this, I guess, is that:

  • short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.
  • attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.
  • you need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.
  • many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

And if you want strategies to help you keep more information active, I suggest you look at improving your ability to chunk, condense and label information. If you can reduce a chunk of information to a single label quickly, all you need to do is remember the label. (I explain all this at length in my book The Memory Key, but I’m afraid it needs far too much explanation to go into here).

Anyway, I hope this helps those of you (most of us!) with short-term memory problems.

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 newsletter.

References: 

Heitz, R.P., Unsworth, N. & Engle, R.W. 2004. Working memory capacity, attention control, and fluid intelligence. In O. Wilhelm & R,W. Engle (eds.) Handbook of Understanding and Measuring Intelligence. London: Sage Publications.

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