October 06, 2011
Working Memory Capacity Separates Good From Great?

So then did Steve Jobs have a large working memory capacity?

EAST LANSING, Mich. — What makes people great? Popular theorists such as the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell and the New York Times’ David Brooks argue that intelligence plays a role – but only up to a point. Beyond that, they say, it’s practice, practice, practice.

Zach Hambrick agrees with the practice argument – imagine where Bill Gates would be if he hadn’t honed his programming skills, after all – but the Michigan State University scientist takes exception to the view that intelligence plays no role in determining excellence.

In a provocative new paper, Hambrick suggests working memory capacity – which is closely related to general intelligence – may sometimes be the deciding factor between good and great.

In a series of studies, Hambrick and colleagues found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels – and even in individuals with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand. The studies analyzed complex tasks such as piano sight reading.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it’s not always sufficient,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology. “Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

Imagine you could think very fast but couldn't hold enough different pieces in your working memory to process all that much data. You might be good at reacting to a fast-changing environment that presents a series of smaller sized problems to solve but not so good at dealing with a single larger sized problem. Just like with computers human memory capacity is just as important as brain processing speed.

A couple of Michigan State University researchers go at differences in intellectual ability from another perspective: People differ in their ability to form longer term memories when sleeping. So someone could process lots of information rapidly but forget most of the conclusions by the next day.

In the study of more than 250 people, Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, suggest people derive vastly different effects from this "sleep memory" ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all. This ability is a new, previously undefined form of memory.

"You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep," Fenn said, "but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine." She added that most people showed improvement.

Someone who has a large memory working set but a poor ability to retain info across sleep cycles could still do things like juggle schedules of taxis, do air traffic controller work, or wait tables in a restaurant. These occupations all involve manipulating a lot of information with a short shelf life.

Someone with large working memory working set but a lower ability to form long term memories might still be able to learn a complex field by just studying for a much longer period of time. But such a willingness to persist shouldn't be applied toward mastery of a field where the basic knowledge guiding practitioners changes rapidly.

Imagine a set of aptitude tests that measure processing time, working memory, and capacity to form longer term memories. The results of such a series of tests could help steer people in career directions that map better to their strengths.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 October 06 10:23 PM  Brain Performance

Michael L said at October 7, 2011 12:16 AM:

good note taking skills help as well. Too bad that our educational system systematically inculcates all sorts of BS but ignores this, as well as many other practically useful skills.

Phillep Harding said at October 7, 2011 8:17 AM:

Taking notes does aid memory, even without having the notes handy.

Pure brains are useless without data to use in that brain. "Good memory" fits right in. Have to remember the puzzle pieces or you just plug along forever.

Lono said at October 7, 2011 8:36 AM:

I think Hambrick is correct about the advantages of working memory - and its relation to IQ - however I find that those I have dealt with who have eidetic memory or very near eidetic memory often have trouble seeing the bigger picture - or sometimes understanding more abstract concepts.

I have talked with many in the extreme upper range of IQ and most of them tend to feel they are unable to effectively lead others due to their detail and sensory overload which serves as a constant distraction from prolonged productive focus.

I personally believe that "greatness", like wealth building, is very path dependent - much as Gladwell argues - but I think Hambrick is correct in saying that IQ still has a higher correlation with extreme innovation or ability than Gladwell has given it credit - and that this is particularly true when paired with increased working memory capacity.

I have been blessed with an exceptional IQ - and an above average working memory capacity - and it is odd - but I have found in my time spent within various High IQ societies - that it is often very easy to quickly identify the most mentally agile members - and they usually seem to have tested IQ's falling somewhere between 140 to 160 and have excellent working memory capacity.

I often enjoy the company of actors and actresses because they often have above average working memory capacities as well - and they therefore seem particularly mentally agile because of it.

bmack500 said at October 7, 2011 9:26 AM:

So I wonder if any of these n-back software programs we are starting to see truly do increase working memory? Does anybody know?

obrien said at October 7, 2011 10:35 AM:

I can definitely relate to this post. I have good long-term memory but my working memory sucks. My math and verbal IQ subscores are quite high (160 math, 150 verbal) but my working memory is a mediocre 108 (my spatial is 121). I did well in school for the most part, and earned a B.S. in physics, but I have no idea what to do with it. Incidentally, I don't think working memory is as correlated with g as math or verbal ability. Also, a working memory deficit, relative to other IQ scores, is probably indicative of attention deficit.

Alexander Jablokov said at October 8, 2011 4:11 AM:

obrien mentions scores on memory tests, as well as IQ. How valid are those numbers? Are the tests self-administered?

As I age, I would like to know something about how my numbers are changing. All of my habits, rules of thumb, and ways of doing things rely on the various levels of ability I had when I developed them. Once a type of memory falls below a certain level, those routines would stop working well, and I would need to come up with others. It would also explain why some kinds of things I used to enjoy were no longer fun. Seeing the numbers would be depressing, of course, but at least it would help me understand what I would need to do to minimize the negative effects of cognitive decline.

PacRim Jim said at October 8, 2011 10:31 AM:

Some things are better forgotten.

BJ said at October 8, 2011 10:53 AM:

Actors have agile minds? Then why is it that so many of them are so stupid?

Gs said at October 8, 2011 11:25 AM:

I'm a classic example of good processesing power but poor discreet memory. For example, I scored a 180 on the LSAT. The solution has been to work on problems that require enormous conceptual understanding and the ability to hold and process many pieces of information within the mind at the same time. Economics, math, physics are the sort of fields excel at. Wouldn't even dream of trying to learn a language.

Alec Rawls said at October 8, 2011 11:59 AM:

It has long been known that many of the most inventive mathematicians were great calculators: Gauss, Ramanujan,Von Neumann,etcetera. These guys were able to carry out vast calculations very quickly in their heads, indicating a capacity to simply hold a lot of stuff as they worked on it.

The connection to inventiveness would seem to be pretty straightforward. If inventiveness means figuring out how a bunch of stuff can be fit together, its obviously going to help if you can hold a bunch of stuff in the first place. It might not be creativity in itself, but it allows creativity to work.

An interesting question is whether a particular KIND of memory is needed. Calculation takes what might be called conscious or short-term memory. Basically, how complex a problem and you hold in your conscious mind. But the parts of the brain that are not being paid conscious attention are also busy. It could be that the greatest genius comes from efficiently managing access to the conscious mind. If all the different parts of the brain are piping up at the right time and the right place to contribute to the conscious thought, then that brain is bringing more brain power to consciousness. Thus the size of consciousness might not be a product of short term memory capacity, but of how well the different parts of the brain are able to work together to create a field of thought where bits of thought are being put together into coherent ideas in the conscious mind.

willis said at October 8, 2011 2:29 PM:

This really was a fantastic article. I just love thinking about, uh, what was this article about again?

McGehee said at October 8, 2011 3:03 PM:
Taking notes does aid memory, even without having the notes handy.
I found that to be the case, but in college I also discovered that having been a note-taker for years previously often made actual note-taking superfluous -- I found I could ace a class without having taken any substantive notes.

The mental habits I'd developed earlier, and which could be sparked just by laying an open notebook on the desk in front of me, seemed to suffice.

Alan said at October 8, 2011 4:02 PM:

My problem exactly, and I wonder why it took educated people so long to figure it out. I knew it all along.

MORPHEUS said at October 9, 2011 8:41 AM:

jobs genius?

this gay cunt could of used his money to find a cure for cancer
instead he died from it and let few million people die from cancer every year

hope he rots in hell low life scum

anybody who thinks jobs was anything more special

then a piece of speacial human scumm

is more stupid then a dead fly and i wanna piss on his face

Mthson said at October 9, 2011 11:08 AM:

Morpheus, that's an interesting thought.

Steve Jobs had 7 years since his diagnosis to found a think tank or research institute. He had unusual assets to bring to the problem in the form of his abilities, capital, and influence on many of the smartest people alive.

How far are we really from being able to extend the life of people in his position? What steps need to be put in place before failing body parts can be replaced well enough to sustain life?

In said at October 9, 2011 5:06 PM:

I googled Steve Jobs IQ and the only site I found (in under a minute) http://www.iqleague.com/user/xaRzxM76PUKt7ZqsAC4iBQ lists it at 100.56. I have no idea if that is accurate, but he never struck me as super bright in the raw brain power sort of way. I mean compare him with Bill Gates: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5Z7eal4uXI. Bills responses seems more subtle and nuanced, more like an erudite college professor than Jobs.

Despite that however, Jobs appears to have consistently bet correctly in the market and also (apparently) was the driving force behind the aesthetic elegance and simplicity of Apple products. So I wonder if not IQ, what is it about Jobs that allowed him to do that? Is working memory coorrelated with IQ? Or is it Luck? Ability to tolerate risks? Some other type of intelligence?

Jobs said at October 9, 2011 6:56 PM:

Where does the myth that Bill Gates has great programming skills come from? Name one important app that he wrote. He bought DOS after misleading IBM into believing he had an OS for their PCs. Other software was either acquired or ripped off from others.

Lono said at October 10, 2011 7:48 AM:


I would not necessarily argue that Jobs was a great person - but certainly he was a great innovator which requires its own form of genius.

He was clearly a narcissist and a control freak - so maybe misplaced priorities had him put his fame above his health. Just another healthy reminder that you can’t take it with you.

In said,

To me it seems likely that Woz and Gates have higher IQ's then Jobs - but likely lower tolerances for risk. From interviews I have seen with bill Gates I believe he has an excellent working memory capacity but I really don't know how Jobs compared because honestly I could never stand to hear the man talk for very long - so self important.

MORPHEUS said at October 10, 2011 8:53 AM:

Mthson, thank for translating my post into laymen terms

Steve Jobs had 7 years since his diagnosis to found a think tank or research institute. He had unusual assets to bring to the problem in the form of his abilities, capital, and influence on many of the smartest people alive.

and he failed to doit even was his own life at stake and millions of others evry year

so there u have it, if he would of been a genius he would not fail

well he was busy seeling overpriced chinese toys for adults

and all the rest of selfish low cunts like bill gates who donates for charities for tax purposes and for ego

and they never cured or fix sheat

cancer_man said at October 11, 2011 9:32 AM:

Bullshit, Randall. He had one of the highest mortality of cancer.

Use your head.

Mthson said at October 11, 2011 12:11 PM:

Cancer Man,

Jobs and his doctors knew as soon as they did tests that he had a rare form of pancreatic cancer that was more treatable.

What matters here is the number of years he had: 7 years. 7 years is a lifetime for a radical science project helmed by a genius and funded by Jobs' own 6 billion plus donations from other sources that would want to help.

He didn't even need to directly cure his cancer within those 7 years. Extending the amount of time he had could have allowed him to then find other interventions that extend his time even more.

Randall Parker said at October 12, 2011 7:05 AM:


- Jobs waited several months after diagnosis before doing conventional treatment. That might have cost him his life.

- He had a rarer form of pancreatic cancer that has a lower mortality rate - at least if treated earlier.

I don't have the time to search up a link. But you can find the details about his cancer and how he initially responded to it.

Mthson said at October 14, 2011 12:07 AM:

Harvard Cancer Expert: Steve Jobs Probably Doomed Himself With Alternative Medicine

Steve Jobs had a mild form of cancer that is not usually fatal, but seems to have ushered along his own death by delaying conventional treatment in favor of alternative remedies, a Harvard Medical School researcher and faculty member says. Jobs's intractability, so often his greatest asset, may have been his undoing."

Wow, if that's true, it's a huge twist in this story... already one of the most compelling stories of our lifetime.

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