Friday, March 13, 2009

Increasing working memory - should we use this with special needs children?

I've written previously about research that suggests working memory can be improved ...
The speculation is that this might bump IQ a bit, maybe enough to make an employability difference for some children. Recently the NYT returned to the topic. They're mostly reviewing the material covered in the above links, but it's a useful summary.

Guest Column: Can We Increase Our Intelligence?

... This week we discuss intelligence and the “Flynn effect,” a phenomenon that is too rapid to be explained by natural selection.

It used to be believed that people had a level of general intelligence with which they were born that was unaffected by environment and stayed the same, more or less, throughout life. But now it’s known that environmental influences are large enough to have considerable effects on intelligence, perhaps even during your own lifetime.

A key contribution to this subject comes from James Flynn, a moral philosopher who has turned to social science and statistical analysis to explore his ideas about humane ideals. Flynn’s work usually pops up in the news in the context of race issues, especially public debates about the causes of racial differences in performance on intelligence tests. We won’t spend time on the topic of race, but the psychologist Dick Nisbett has written an excellent article on the subject.

Flynn first noted that standardized intelligence quotient (I.Q.) scores were rising by three points per decade in many countries, and even faster in some countries like the Netherlands and Israel. For instance, in verbal and performance I.Q., an average Dutch 14-year-old in 1982 scored 20 points higher than the average person of the same age in his parents’ generation in 1952. These I.Q. increases over a single generation suggest that the environmental conditions for developing brains have become more favorable in some way.

What might be changing? One strong candidate is working memory, defined as the ability to hold information in mind while manipulating it to achieve a cognitive goal. Examples include remembering a clause while figuring out how it relates the rest of a sentence, or keeping track of the solutions you’ve already tried while solving a puzzle... Differences in working memory capacity account for 50 to 70 percent of individual differences in fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning ability) in various meta-analyses, suggesting that it is one of the major building blocks of I.Q. (Ackerman et al; Kane et al; Süss et al.) This idea is intriguing because working memory can be improved by training.

A common way to measure working memory is called the “n-back” task. Presented with a sequential series of items, the person taking the test has to report when the current item is identical to the item that was presented a certain number (n) of items ago in the series. For example, the test taker might see a sequence of letters like


presented one at a time. If the test is an easy 1-back task, she should press a button when she sees the second H and the second T. For a 3-back task, the right answers are K and N, since they are identical to items three places before them in the list. Most people find the 3-back condition to be challenging.

A recent paper reported that training on a particularly fiendish version of the n-back task improves I.Q. scores.... [jf see my links, above]

...People benefited across the board, regardless of their starting levels of working memory or I.Q. scores (though the results hint that those with lower I.Q.s may have shown larger gains). Simply practicing an I.Q. test can lead to some improvement on the test, but control subjects who took the same two I.Q. tests without training improved only slightly. Also, increasing I.Q. scores by practice doesn’t necessarily increase other measures of reasoning ability (Ackerman, 1987).

... Now, some caveats. The results, though tantalizing, are not perfect. It would have been better to give the control group some other training not related to working memory, to show that the hard work of training did not simply motivate the experimental group to try harder on the second I.Q. test. The researchers did not test whether working memory training improved problem-solving tasks of the type that might occur in real life. Finally, they did not explore how much improvement would be seen with further training....


C. Jarrold and J.N. Towse (2006) Individual differences in working memory. Neuroscience 139 (2006) 39–50.

P.L. Ackerman, M.E. Beier, and M.O. Boyle (2005) Working memory and intelligence: the same or different constructs? Psychological Bulletin 131:30–60.

M.J. Kane, D.Z. Hambrick, and A.R.A. Conway (2005) Working memory capacity and fluid intelligence are strongly related constructs: comment on Ackerman, Beier, and Boyle (2005). Psychological Bulletin 131:66–71.

H.-M. Süss, K. Oberauer, W.W. Wittmann, O. Wilhelm, and R. Schulze (2002) Working-memory capacity explains reasoning ability—and a little bit more. Intelligence 30:261–288.

S.M. Jaeggi, M. Buschkuehl, J. Jonides, and W.J. Perrig (2008) Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105:6829-6833.

D.A. Bors, F. Vigneau (2003) The effect of practice on Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices. Learning and Individual Differences 13:291–312.

P.L. Ackerman (1987) Individual differences in skill learning: An integration of psychometric and information processing perspectives. Psychological Bulletin 102:3–27.

Footnotes! Wow. BTW, The removal of lead from our environment accounts for some of the Flynn effect, and so might the starvation diets of many pre-1950 europeans ...

On a personal note although people sometimes tell me they think I'm clever, I'm terrible at memory exercises. So if I could get my son to do these exercises, I'd give it a try myself.

At the moment Lumosity is the only working memory "game" for the iPhone.

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