Working Memory – the Key to Brilliance

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Prodigies dazzle us with their virtuoso violin concertos, seemingly prescient chess moves, and vivid paintings. While their work would be enough to impress us if they were 40, prodigies typically reach adult levels of performance in non-verbal, rule-based domains such as chess, art, and music before the age of 10.

Scott Barry Kaufman

What sets a child prodigy apart from the rest of us? The answer is surprisingly concise. According to a study from the journal Intelligence, it’s all about working memory.

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

The One Consistent Trend

In this study, a group of prodigies from different backgrounds (art, music, math) was examined across a variety of tests and scores. Their results ranged in everything, from IQ (108 to 147) to their cognitive profiles. The only consistent trend that united them was their working memory ability. Regardless of their performance in every other aspect, all prodigies placed in the 99th percentile for working memory ability (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.

Based on the results of this study, it would appear that the key to exceptional ability is an excellent working memory.

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is “a brain system that provides temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning.” – Science (1992)

“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

Why is Working Memory so Important?

Working memory is important because it helps children to learn. In preschool, it helps children:

  • learn the alphabet
  • focus on short instructions
  • remain seated to complete independent activities

In elementary school, it helps children:

  • with reading comprehension
  • with mental arithmetic
  • interact and respond appropriately in peer activities

In middle school, it helps children:

  • do their homework independently
  • plan and pack for an activity
  • solve multi-step math problems, like worded math problems
  • participate in team sports

In high school, it helps children:

  • get their driver’s license and drive safely
  • understand social cues and respond to the demands of a social situation
  • write essays and reports

weak working memory function can have a significant negative impact on an individual all the way through to adulthood.

Working Memory Affects Academic Performance

In a longitudinal study over 6 years, Working Memory scores at 5 years of age predicted grades in Reading, Spelling, and Math when students were 11 years old.

The findings indicate that children’s working memory skills at 5 years of age were the best predictor of literacy and numeracy 6 years later. IQ, in contrast, accounted for a smaller portion of unique variance to these learning outcomes. The results demonstrate that working memory is not a proxy for IQ but rather represents a dissociable cognitive skill with unique links to academic attainment.

Experimental Child Psychology (2010)

Working Memory Ability is Closely Associated with Scholastic Progress

There is a close association between working memory ability and scholastic progress in language, math, and science throughout the schooling years.

The findings indicate that the capacity to store and process material over short periods of time, referred to as working memory, and also the awareness of phonological structure, may play a crucial role in key learning areas for children at the beginning of formal education.

The British Psychological Society (2005)

Children with Weak Working Memory Have Difficulties in School

Poor working memory function has been linked to common difficulties in school, including lengthy instructions, missing out letters or words in a sentence, and struggling to remember and process information at the same time.

“The majority of the children [with low working memory scores] struggled in the learning measures and verbal ability. They also obtained atypically high ratings of cognitive problems/inattentive symptoms and were judged to have short attention spans, high levels of distractibility, problems in monitoring the quality of their work, and difficulties in generating new solutions to problems.”

Child Development (2009)

Children with poor working memory function struggle to keep up with the teacher’s instructions in class which can significantly affect their learning in school.

“working memory plays a significant role in typical classroom activities that involve both the storage and mental manipulation of information. working memory overload is likely to result in task failures that will inevitably impair their rates of learning.”

Applied Cognitive Psychology (2008)

Working Memory Compensates for Learning Style Limitations

Children have different learning styles which can impact their ability to learn new material depending on how it is presented. The limitations of their individual learning styles can be overcome by having a good working memory.

“For students with high working memory, their style preference does not impact attainment. Students most at risk were analytics with low working memory as they performed worse in the most subjects.”

Educational Psychology (2010)

Early intervention is important

Children with working memory problems are often either misdiagnosed for attentional problems or they are missed entirely. The research indicates that early detection and intervention are important because the deficits cannot be made up over time and it can continue to compromise the likelihood of the children’s academic successes (Experimental Child Psychology, 2010).

Younger children (below the age of 10 years) showed significantly larger benefits from verbal working memory training than older children (11-18 years of age).

Developmental Psychology (2013)

The indications are that working memory training works better with younger children.


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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