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Working Memory and Mind Wandering

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Working memory, as it turns out, has a counterintuitive relationship with both intelligence and creativity. 


The posting below looks at the relationship between working memory and creativity.  It is from Chapter 7 – Leveling the Educational Playing Field, in the book: Mindshift – Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, by Barbara Oakley, PhD*.  The book, which will be on sale on April 18, 2017 is a TercherPerigee Book: An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014. Copyright © 2017 Barbara Oakley. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Future of Community Colleges


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Working Memory and Mind Wandering


Working memory basically amounts to how much information you can hold temporarily in mind – like the five names of people in a group you’ve been introduced to. (Wait, was the first one Jack?) Working memory, as it turns out, has a counterintuitive relationship with both intelligence and creativity.

Intelligence is often equated to the strength of your working memory [Note 24]. People with steel-trap minds – strong working memories – often have the enviable ability to hold many aspects of a problem in their head at once. This leads to easier problem-solving. A person with a limited working memory, on the other hand, must find a way to simplify complex topics to work with them. The process of finding ways to simplify can be tedious and time-consuming. But surprisingly, research has shown there’s a hidden benefit – people with less capable working memories are more likely to see shortcuts and have conceptual breakthroughs. It seems the “smarter” person with large and retentive working memory sometimes has less incentive to see the material in newer, simpler ways [Note 25].

There’s another drawback to having a steel-trap mind. If you can understand something by easily holding ten steps in mind at once, your tendency is to explain it to others in ten-step fashion – even if people tend to become lost after step three. Steel-trap brilliance, in other words, can make it harder to teach others, especially if your steel-trap mind is coupled with a “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” mentality. In Adam’s case, he’s got a teaching advantage. As he notes, once he comes to the point where he understands something, he can generally explain it so anybody can understand it. There are other advantages to having a limited working memory. The ideas you want so badly to hold in mind may float away despite your best efforts – to be replaced randomly by other ideas, thoughts, and sensations. This may sound less than ideal, but this is also what underpins creativity [Note 26]. Poor working memory, incidentally, is often correlated with attention deficit disorder, so if this condition is making school tougher for you, it’s important to realize it also gives you advantages [Note 27].

You may argue that a strong working memory not only helps with problem-solving – it helps as well with getting good grades. But research has shown that there is a counter-correlation between school grades and creativity [Note 28]. The better your grades, in other words, sometimes means the worse your creativity [Note 29]. It may simply be that disagreeable people are more willing to be brats – to throw aside the compliant, deferential demeanor of their more agreeable peers. Looking back at Adam’s wild streak as a youngster, it’s possible that it was just a manifestation of his creativity.

Incidentally, enhancing your working memory can be tough. Exercises to build working memory may strengthen your ability to do that particular task, but they often don’t seem to build the overall capacity of working memory itself [Note 30]. Only one set of programs, those by BrainHQ, seem to reliably increase working memory [Note 31]. This program won’t turn you into a genius, but it does appear to improve memory, processing speed, and general cognition, in some sense stopping or reversing the mental clock as you age. We’ll discuss BrainHQ further in Chapter 8.

Whether the effect is small or large, there appears to be a surprising side benefit from such exercises: They seem to improve mood – decreasing feelings of anger, depression, and fatigue [Note 32]. Rather than dampening the cantankerous amygdala, these exercises reduce activity in the anger-modulating apparatus of the insula. This is a part of the brain that allows us to experience not only pain, but a number of the basic emotions, including anger, fear, disgust, and happiness. Working memory related exercises may give us stronger mental “muscles” for cognitively managing emotional stimuli. Since learning frequently entails exercises like those used to enhance working memory, this may help explain why adopting a learning lifestyle can just plain make us feel better.

Key Mindshift

The hidden good side of a poor working memory

When you might be struggling to hold something difficult in mind as you are trying to understand it, remind yourself that your struggles may well arise in tandem with your creativity. You wouldn’t want to trade your creative streak, even if it does mean that sometimes you need to work a little harder!

Notes & References

24.  Ackerman, et al., 2005; Conway, et al., 2003.

25.  DeCaro, et al., 2015.

26.  Lv, 2015; Takeuchi, et al., 2012; White and Shah, 2006.

27.  Patros, et al., 2015; Rapport, et al., 2009.

28.  Simonton, 2004.

29.  See Ellis, et al., 2003, who notes: “Agreeable team members, who by definition are compliant and deferent, may more readily accept the opinion of their team members uncritically in order to avoid argument.”

30.  Melby-Lervag and Hume, 2013.

31.  Smith, et al., 2015 – there’s about a 4 percent increase which, as related research shows, appears to be lasting. A list of up-to-date research publications on BrainHQ’s memory-related programs is maintained here:

32. Takeuchi, et al., 2014: “Working memory training improves emotional states of healthy individuals.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 8 (2014): 200.

Ackerman, PL, et al. “Working memory and intelligence: The same or different constructs?” Psychological Bulletin 131, 1 (2005): 30-60.

Conway, AR, et al. “Working memory capacity and its relation to general intelligence.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, 12 (2003): 547-552.

DeCaro, MS, et al. “When higher working memory capacity hinders insight.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 42, 1 (2015): 39-49.

Ellis, AP, et al. “Team learning: Collectively connecting the dots.” Journal of Applied Psychology 88, 5 (2003): 821.

Lv, K. “The involvement of working memory and inhibition functions in the different phases of insight problem solving.” Memory & Cognition 43, 5 (2015): 709-722.

Melby-Lervag, M. and C. Hulme. “Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review.” Developmental Psychology 49, 2 (2013): 270-291.

Patros, CH, et al. “Visuospatial working memory underlies choice-impulsivity in boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Research in Developmental Disabilities 38 (2015): 134-144.

Rapport, MD, et al. “Hyperactivity in boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A ubiquitous core symptom or manifestation of working memory deficits?” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 37, 4 (2009): 521-534.

Smith, GE, et al. “A cognitive training program based on principles of brain plasticity: Results from the improvement in memory with plasticity-based adaptive cognitive training (IMPACT) study.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 57, 4 (2009): 594-603.

Takeuchi, H. et al. “The association between resting functional connectivity and creativity.” Cerebral Cortex 22, 12 (2012): 2921-2929.

--------, “Failing to deactivate: The association between brain activity during a working memory task and creativity.” NeuroImage 55, 2 (2011): 681-687.

White, HA, and P Shah. “Uninhibited imaginations: Creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Personality and Individual Differences 40, 6 (2006): 1121-1131.


*Barbara Oakley, PhD, is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan; a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, San Diego; and Coursera’s inaugural “Innovation Instructor.” Her research involves bioengineering with a focus on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. Together with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, she co-teaches Coursera’s “Learning How to Learn,” the world’s most popular massive open online course. Dr. Oakley has received many awards for her teaching, including the American Society of Engineering Education’s Chester F. Carlson Award for technical innovation in education and the National Science Foundation New Century Scholar Award.