Monday, October 18, 2010

The Unexpected Benefits of Poor Working Memory - ADD and Lazy Genius?

I've been enjoying reading The Benefits and Perils of Attentional Control by Decaro and Beilock, and its more than a professional interest (see Confessions of a Limited Working Memory Victim).

Many people have very poor working memories - in my case it's a very bad auditory verbal working memory. Always had it, I can't blame age. I can't keep much in my head whether it's someone telling me directions, typing in a computer password someone's told me, or listening to a lecture (fortunately I can write things down). I don't listen to books on tape.

I am not alone, of course - this is a common feature of ADD and some dyslexics, and seems to be more common in certain types of thinkers...especially those with strong spatial or visual thinking preferences like physicists or some artists for instance. Usually having a poor auditory verbal working memory is thought of as only a bad thing, that's why the chapter in the book Effortless Attention was so interesting to read.

Researchers made the following observations about low working memory victims (LWMVs):

- LWMVs had more diffuse attention on divided attention tasks (they noticed what they were told to ignore) - obviously good for some situations, bad for others
- LWMVs were less likely to choke under emotional pressure
- LWMVs were more likely to switch to simpler problem solving strategies when the option became available (lazy, but flexible)
- LWMVs were also more flexible with problem solving approaches in general - especially when domain-specific distractors were present. High working memory people, especially those with some expertise in a domain tended to make errors, persisting too long at dysfunctional approaches when they thought they could use their expert backgrounds
-  LWMVs were more likely to use associative strategies in solving problems
- Although LWMVs were poorer at rule-based category learning, they were better than HWM folks and information-integration tasks...that involve associative skills more than rule-based and high working memory demands

Some take-home points:

"Working memory supports a persistent approach in ways that are sometimes too selective. Such reliance on cognitive control not only may limit the discovery of new problem-soving approaches but may also lead to an attention-dependent learning strategy that overrides a more optimal associative strategy."

"It is commonly believed that the more extensively information is processed and attended to, the more optimal performance may be...however, greater attentional control capabilities can impede performance, and individuals with less cognitive control can excel beyond their higher capacity counterparts by effectively utilizing simpler strategies."  Could this be 'big picture thinking'?

photo finger and string

3 comments:

  1. What a great post. It reminds me to keep Luria in mind by focusing on what is "intact". I have made some of these observations in my clinical practice, so this research really got my attention.

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  2. I feel like this explains so much about how I learn. I've never been good at memorizing and reciting facts, but I've always seemed to have these big "jumps" of insight into things. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it doesn't happen until the pieces come together.

    For instance: for a long time, I figured I was kinda "meh" as a musician. I was in band and jazz band in junior high and high school and the practice techniques and focus on memorized theory never really stuck for me or translated easily into my playing. I didn't get how to solo, and attempts to explain it to me as "you're just playing the notes in the key you're in" didn't work because I couldn't remember what notes were in key without thinking about it (couldn't hold it in working memory) which stopped me from simply feeling the music. Years later after not having those methodical memory-based techniques being my goto for theory (because I started to play around with it in a totally unstructured way on guitar and piano), and after picking up guitar seriously again, I'm finding it just starting to click. I remember things in terms of patterns - things I can map visually onto the fretboard. If I need to figure out a scale I can walk through it note by note (and sort of register it by ear), but then I immediately start looking for patterns in it and those are what stick. Once I've got that, I'm just playing with patterns on top of patterns and I'm adding feel and character into them. It feels much more organic to me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I feel like this explains so much about how I learn. I've never been good at memorizing and reciting facts, but I've always seemed to have these big "jumps" of insight into things. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it doesn't happen until the pieces come together.

    For instance: for a long time, I figured I was kinda "meh" as a musician. I was in band and jazz band in junior high and high school and the practice techniques and focus on memorized theory never really stuck for me or translated easily into my playing. I didn't get how to solo, and attempts to explain it to me as "you're just playing the notes in the key you're in" didn't work because I couldn't remember what notes were in key without thinking about it (couldn't hold it in working memory) which stopped me from simply feeling the music. Years later after not having those methodical memory-based techniques being my goto for theory (because I started to play around with it in a totally unstructured way on guitar and piano), and after picking up guitar seriously again, I'm finding it just starting to click. I remember things in terms of patterns - things I can map visually onto the fretboard. If I need to figure out a scale I can walk through it note by note (and sort of register it by ear), but then I immediately start looking for patterns in it and those are what stick. Once I've got that, I'm just playing with patterns on top of patterns and I'm adding feel and character into them. It feels much more organic to me.

    ReplyDelete