Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Mind Games Harder for Kids

An immature prefrontal network seems to be responsible for the trouble that children (here age 8-12) have with manipulating information that they're keeping "in mind". 8-12 years have an easier time "spitting back" information (rote memory) - it's just they break down if they have to manipulate what they're keeping in mind.

Every parent and teacher is accustomed to this - it when a student can repeat back what they've seen or heard, but can't analyze it or apply it to some other purpose.

In the figure below, look at how more efficiently even the worst 18-25 performers on the working memory task were able to activate their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex on the backwards digit task, compared to the 8-12 year olds.

The practical implications: when teaching 8-12 year olds and having them perform task that require manipulation of information (applied problems, multi-stepped math, etc.), it is very important that working memory demands not be exceeded. In order to work with data, most preteens can't keep that much in their heads - they need more written explanations and the information should be "chunked".

Children Struggle with Working Memory Manipulation


  1. I read your blog faithfully and am grateful for the way it helps me keep up with developments in brain research, but I do have one serious complaint. Clicking on the links you give for additional material doesn't take me to the originating site, as I would prefer, but instead starts the download of a PDF file. I'm on dialup and downloads are slow, and I also prefer to download material in a text format so that I can highlight, make notes etc.

    Of course, I can copy the URL from the bottom bar of my browser, but that means writing it out by hand so that my mouse can keep it in sight. Please give some consideration to giving a non-PDF link.

  2. My apologies. At least in the case of "Mind Games Harder for Kids" I see that it is actually a PDF. But since the URL doesn't indicate this, it would be appreciated if you would do so, since in some cases I would choose not to bother.

  3. Sorry, catana. I'm glad you mentioned it. We lost our broadband last month, we know how different it is with dialup.

    We'll try to post html links when we can. The high graphics files are often put into pdf. We'll try to remember to put it in the title if it's a pdf file.

    Thanks for letting know, we wouldn't have thought of it otherwise.

  4. Alan Pritt9:06 AM

    Regarding practical implications: is it not important that children are given difficult working memory challenges in order that they stretch themselves and learn to manipulate data in their heads? Or is this sorting ability something that develops naturally as one ages?

  5. Great point, Alan. I'm glad you brought this up. It is true that working memory can be built up - but that this is the tricky balancing act between teacher and student.

    Because usually a student's role in the classroom is to be a polite audience (sit, take notes, be quiet), students can get lost - and have no other choice than to try to figure out what was going on in class after they get home.

    Good teachers get to recognize that deer-in-the-headlights look of working memory overload, and even then the classroom can't always be held back if only a few are completely lost.

    The important thing is - working memory is not the same as learning ability or even long term memory. Some people (adults, too) have very short working memories - but outstanding long term memory. It means they will be very sensitive to how information is presented, but won't necessarily need more repetitions.

    The physicist Enrico Fermi was like this - he said he had to take notes when listening to people because he was very forgetful - but he also struggled with taking notes at the same time he was listening. He was best with taking in information in chunks and then being allowed time to reflect on what was said.

    We've generally recommended that working memory be performed as a separate activity - verbal working memory can be practiced by working with sentences of increasing length - but a different sort of practice would involve key words and sequence of main point...the latter may be of more practical help for older students and adults when the quantity of auditory material goes up.

  6. Thank you for the detailed reply. We seem to be on a similar wavelength.

    I'm interested in the methods of training working memory you cite. Do you have any more information on them, studies into their effectiveness, etc. I'm planning on researching this in detail with particular interest to adult training and any pointers would be most appreciated.

    Thank you