The Role of Working memory in Intelligence

The definition and study of human intelligence is a subject that has attracted its fair share of controversy over the years. This is largely because there’s no consensus in how intelligence is defined. For example, while some scholars attribute practical problem solving skills, verbal ability and social competence as measures of intelligence, others include adaptability to new problems and situations, capacity for knowledge and creativity as key indicators. Then there are recent sociologists such as Daniel Goleman, who have revolutionized the concept of intelligence by including an ‘emotional’ dimension to the already accepted ‘cognitive’ dimension. Hence, the study of human intelligence is presently a flourishing field of scientific inquiry with a broad range of perspectives and approaches leading to its understanding. It is in this context that the role of working memory in the functioning of intelligence should be investigated.

Working memory (WM), alongside other components of general cognitive architecture such as length comparison, reading comprehension and abstract reasoning, has been identified as strong candidates for individual differences in intellectual abilities. Casually, working memory can be described as a ‘mental jotting pad’. How spacious it is will determine an individual’s learning ability. Theoretically, Working memory is defined as “the work space of the mind, a system for accessing goal-relevant information as needed to support complex cognition. This theoretical definition is supported by widespread observations.” (Broadway & Engle, 2010, p.563) In other words, working memory is key for understanding a broad range of phenomena that finds application in many applied disciplines of psychology such as clinical, educational, social and neuropsychological fields. It is also noted to be important for frontal lobe function (executive ability). But working memory is far from a simple ‘work space of the mind’, in that, it is comprised of “multiple component processes for maintaining, accessing, manipulating, and coordinating information.” (Broadway & Engle, 2010, p.563) Hence, scholars have attempted to isolate hypothetical working memory processes that are behind observed links between WM capacity and complex cognition. Present theories differ in their depth and focus, but there is a growing agreement among researchers that executive, attention-related processes are crucial to these links.

In a research experiment conducted by the scholar team of Broadway & Engle (2010), the findings show correlation between working memory and general fluid intelligence. Their results indicate that the span of running memory is a strong indicator of working memory space and is also equated with general fluid intelligence. However, it may not be as directly responsive to details of administration as has been so far thought. The results “add to growing evidence that running memory span tasks function similarly to complex-span tasks as measures of working memory capacity that are strongly predictive of general fluid intelligence.” (Broadway & Engle, 2010, p.563)

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