Confessions of a Limited Working Memory Victim

A friend recommended I watch neuroscientist Jill Taylor's TED talk Stroke of Insight. In the talk, Dr. Taylor recounts her personal experiences with a stroke in her left language area. It's a remarkable lecture and a highly recommend it.

But I confess, her story got me thinking about my own learning differences, and in particular, my limitation with working memory. And I thought as a neurologist, maybe it would be interesting to some of you to share how I became aware of my working memory limitations and what my experiences are with it.

As it often happens, I only accidentally discovered how bad my auditory working memory was when we were playing a memory game with our kids. To my surprise, I had the worst memory span in our family (we were practicing repeating back sentences of increasing length), all this despite the fact that working memory tends to increase into adulthood.

How is it that I only really discovered it now? One answer, I think, is Compensation.

How could I get by well enough to make it through medical school and Harvard, and manage my share of the household to a reasonable degree? (I confess do forget to pick up things at the market and misplace items with regularity) And I know I'm not alone. Some ADD doomsayers wouldn't think that a person like me could exist, but there are many examples of other famously feeble LWMV's who have managed to survive and thrive*, and here are a few reasons why I think that may be so.

How Do Limited Working Memory Victims Survive and Thrive?

1. Flitting Not Sitting

Many successful adults with teeny tiny working memories flit about in their activities - some keep physically busy doing different things, while others keep intellectually busy in the same flitting way. Over the course of an hour, I may return to a difficult task multiple times, like a hummingbird drinking nector from different flowers. It allows me to take in as much as I can at one time, then break, then take another little sip again when I'm ready. It works for me because my long term memory is quite strong - it's just my working memory that is weak. I can remember where I was when I return to it, and this is working more productively than if I were to force myself not to switch off, but stick to a single task. I think taking in information with little interruptions also takes advantage of the novelty learning in me. Stick with something for a long time would seem like such a chore, but this way is manageable.

2. Long Term Memory is Strong

If our long term working memory is strong, then a limited working memory doesn't have to be a huge handicap. Many gifted individuals with ADD may fit this could they score so well on their IQ tests if they didn't have strong long term verbal or nonverbal memories? It's the kids and adults with both weak working and long term memories that face the greatest obstacles in school and life.

3. Successful LWMV's may be Strong Inductive or Bottom-Up Learners

I have a suspicion that the LWMV is especially well-suited to the inductive learner, i.e. learners that learn best from firsthand hand experiences or personal example. Inductive learners are sometimes called bottom-up learners because they take information in from many different examples then reason back to rules based on patterns that they find. The LWMV-ADD-Inductive Learner connection may be why so many kids with attention complaints have diffuse attention and why we find they prefer to learn kinesthetically or from direct personal experiences. It seems that many of these kids seem to for a reason.

4. Many LWMVs are Strong Interest-Based Learners

There does seem to be a paradox that exists for many LWMV's: if something really captivates their interest, like music or photography for Ansel Adams or a beautiful problem to an LWMV mathematician or physicist, then persistence at a task doesn't seem to be a problem. It's like getting the key that unlocks all of memory's doors, and time may seem to stop. No doubt some outsiders would call this a LWMV's hyperfocus, but it misses the point if it doesn't recognize that only certain intrinsically motivating and pleasurable activities trigger this remarkable focusing and memory-enhancing phenomenon.

Anyway, some more things to think about when wrestling with decisions about what to do about limited working memory. It is possible to survive and thrive even with itsy bitsy working memory spans.

*Some famous LWMV's: Enrico Fermi often complained of a terrible memory. He took notes all the time and called his notebook his "artificial memory". From Polya's Mathematicians I Have Known, "Are mathematicians absent-minded or eccentric? I don't know, but there are infinitely many stories purporting that they are, and I shall quote a few...There is a party at (David) Hilbert's house and Frau Hilbert suddenly notices that her husband has forgotten to put on a fresh shirt...David...meekly obeys and goes upstairs. Yet he does not come back. Five minutes pass, ten minutes Frau Hilbert goes up to the bedroom and there is Hilbert in his bed. You see it was the natural sequence of things: He took off his coat, then his tie, then his shirt, and so on, and went to sleep!"

If you'd like to read more, also check out The Man of Genius. Excerpt: "Forgetfulness is another of the characters of genius. It is said that Newton once rammed his niece's finger into his pipe; when he left his room to seek for anything he usually returned without bring it..." Now obviously not everyone with the working memory of a gnat is a genius, but the point I'm making today is that it is possible to achieve a certain level of success and still seem to have only the smallest file cabinet for working memory.

BTW, if you think there's a high incidence of physicists and mathematicians in this group, you may be right. I have physicists and engineers in my family tree. Working memory limitations often run in families (but don't have to), and are seen more often in spatially-talented families, dyslexic families, etc. They may be attracted to simplicity because that's all they have room for.

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Motivation and Memory
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Passion and Flow as a Learning Strategy
Eide Neurolearning Blog: ADHD - A Different Motivation Pathway?


  1. Yes! It's so nice for me, a lifetime victim of limited working memory and attention shortages, to be able to share insight with my daughter. We are both inductive thinkers with strong visual reasoning, and compensation is where it's at! I am also thankful that she has an amazing GATE program with teachers who consistently "get it." Boo for the doomsayers!

  2. Wow, GREAT post! My son has working memory issues, but decent long-term memory. Are there any exercises that could help a young child develop better compensation skills for short-term memory problems? He has auditory processing disorder. Isn't there a link between APD and memory issues? I wonder if it's a memory problem or more because they don't understand what is said. I love your blog! Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post, I am looking forward to the Dr. Taylor reference too. You really explained something for me with your discussion of the hyperfocusing. I struggle because now that I am a part-time stay at home mom, I have learned that I cannot seem to actually watch my twin boys and cook supper at the same time. I can't remember how long anything has been on the stove etc. or else I can't keep track of what they are doing, etc., and since I'm supposed to be doing floortime with one of them ... well, anyway, I wondered about my own working memory. Except that I graduated first in my class from law school!! How could this be? My husband marveled at my ability to sit for hours and hours and hours read the same casebooks over and over. When I was working at the law firm, I was famous for my ability to do that sort of thing too. Except when I was goofing off, of course. Anyway, there are lots of contradictions, but your explanations help patch that hole in my understanding. It really is nice to be able to begin to develop some sort of framework to understand this stuff. I can't understand anything without a framework. I can't remember it! LOL.

  4. So now you've piqued my curiosity. Is this post from Fernette or Brock?

  5. Ha ha. Funny, huh Paige? This is from Fernette. Brock has other 'issues', shall we say?

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