Is Working Memory the Key to Brilliance?

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What makes a child prodigy different from the rest of us? The following study from the journal Intelligence may provide the answer.

More striking is that every single prodigy scored off the charts in working memory — better than 99 percent of the general population. In fact, six out of the eight prodigies scored at the 99.9th percentile! – Scientific American

Source: Ruthsatz, J., & Urbach, J.B., Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root of prodigiousnessIntelligence (2012), doi:10.1016/j.intell.2012.06.002

Results reveal one consistent trend

Regardless of their performance in every other aspect, all prodigies placed in the 99th percentile for working memory ability, or the ability to store and manipulate multiple pieces of information. In every other measured trait, prodigies varied considerably:

  • General IQ scores ranged from 108 to 142 points (an average score is 100); the two bottommost ranking prodigies were only in the 70th and 79th percentiles. While all prodigies were intelligent, researchers concluded that extreme IQ was not a determinant.
  • Prodigies also failed to display high visual abilities across the board or train their skills for 10 or more years before demonstrating extraordinary talent. I thought this latter point was an interesting deviation from our commonly held belief of the 10,000 hours of practice theory from Malcolm Gladwell.
  • Prodigies scored differently on the autism assessment compared to a control group of normal people, though the difference was not significant.

The study suggests that a good working memory may be the key to exceptional ability.

What is Working Memory?

“Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for keeping information online, manipulating it, and using it in your thinking. It is the way that you delegate the things you encounter to the parts of your brain that can take action. In this way, working memory is necessary for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping you updated and aware about what’s going on around you.” – Cogmed

Working memory is your brain’s Post-it note. You can think of it as the active part of your memory system. It’s like mental juggling – as information comes in, you process it at the same time as you store it. A child uses this skill when doing math calculations or listening to a story, for example. She has to hold onto the numbers while working with them; or, she needs to remember the sequence of events and also think of what the story is about. – NCLD

How do you train Working Memory?


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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