Falling short: deficits in working memory

Many people are constrained by the limits of the working memory. Some are born with poor working memory; others acquire working memory problems through certain illnesses or natural aging and still others experience working memory problems because their environment places too many demands on their working memory.

Native deficits
Many people experience poor working memory from a very young age and it affects their ability to focus attention, control impulses, stay organized and solve problems. In the case of commonly diagnosed attention problems, such as ADHD, it is become clear that working memory deficits are more than just a contributing factor. “We have really changed our understanding of working memory and how it relates to attention problems,” said Dr. Theresa Cerulli a prominent psychiatrist from Andover, Mass., who has been treating children with ADHD for many years. “We used to view working memory as co-existing deficit in ADHD but now we see that it is the core deficit.”

Acquired deficits
Some people acquire working memory deficits after traumas such as stroke victims, pediatric cancer survivors and war veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injury. Most commonly, working memory deficits develop gradually during the process of normal aging.

Environmental deficits
Working memory isn’t just a constraint for those whose capacity falls in the lower percentage of the population. Many people – including very intelligent people – experience strains on their working memory because of external causes, namely the hectic environment in which they struggle to perform.

One experience that can challenge anyone’s working memory is stress. A growing list of research studies is shedding important light on why normally intelligent people fail under pressure and how the answer is centered on understanding working memory.

In one example, Robert Rydell at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Allen McConnell at Miami University showed that a group of college women who normally perform well in math struggled significantly on a test when they were told they were competing against a group of men. During post-experiment interviews, many women admitted they were nervous and distracted by the news they were being compared to men. The conclusion of this study, and many others like it, is that stress takes up working memory and leaves less capacity for the task at hand.