Memory. Sweet, constant memory. We remember lots of things…smells, tastes, sounds, feelings, words. We use memory to help us in mundane tasks..the memory of letter shapes that we use to write words, the memory of what we just heard to help us carry out a job, the memory of number order to help us make computations in the grocery store. If you can’t remember things, it’s hard to do them properly or function without extreme frustration.
At 10, Naturalist tested in the 2% for working memory. This is most often found by using a ‘Digit Span’ test…how many numbers can you remember and recall.
It can be seen as a measure of working memory (or short-term memory, depending on the psychological framework used), although other factors such as attention and comprehension also contribute to the performance on this test.
In a typical test of memory span, a list of random numbers is read out at about the rate of one per second. The test begins with two to three numbers, increasing until the person commits errors. Recognisable patterns (for example 2, 4, 6, 8) should be avoided. At the end of a sequence, the person being tested is asked to recall the items in order.
Individuals with larger memory spans can keep in mind more different stimuli, and this seems to give them an advantage for a wide variety of cognitive tasks. Memory span has been linked to performance on intelligence tests, reading skills, problem solving, and a variety of other cognitive tasks.
While her short term memory was at 1%, her long term memory was somewhere at 93%, meaning she has a powerful memory for things if they make it into her long term memory. To clarify the difference:
long term memory is memory that can last as little as a few days or as long as decades. It differs structurally and functionally from working memory or short-term memory, which ostensibly stores items for only around 20 seconds. Biologically, short-term memory is a temporary potentiation of neural connections that can become long-term memory through the process of rehearsal and meaningful association.
Practically speaking, before I knew about digit span tests, working memory, or percentiles, I thought either I or Naturalist was stark raving mad. I knew all about her crisp mind for detailing things that had happened long ago. She would tell me, in detail, all about her room when she was 9 months old, and how one night she was reaching up to play with her mobile when she saw a big bright light outside her window (the moon) and it was so pretty she looked up even higher and then tumbled over because she wasn’t good at sitting yet. She can draw photographically accurate pictures of her 3rd birthday party…the bouganvilla climbing the trellis, the colors of the flowers, the donut cake and differently shaped pools. Her recall of the places we visited while living in Europe when she was 4 oftentimes out details my memories.
But when I ask her why she isn’t doing [x, y, z] like I just asked her 2 minutes ago, she goes, “Huh? What? I don’t remember you asking that!”. When she used to sit at the table with homework, she’d look up at me with tears and say, “I don’t remember how to do this. I don’t remember doing anything like this in school!” There are few things as frustrating as looking at someone who is so good at remembering minute details and having them say, “Wha??? I don’t remember that…” I tried to keep an even tone, but this always got the best of me. My anger would go from 0-60 because obviously she was 1) lying, and she thought I was 2) an idiot. And obviously she was blowing off school and not applying herself and omg, she was doomed to the life of a slacker because where do you go but DOWN when you already have such a bad attitude about school in 3rd grade! And secretly, I was worried that she was as dumb as a stump. I know, NOT the kind of thing a mom should think, and most of the time I didn’t, but sometimes she’d get this vacant look in her eye and say…”I don’t remember” to something that happened not a day before. What was I to think?!
I’m not alone. If you google “working memory problems” you will get bunches of amazing articles that talk about this.
However, the researchers identified that poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers, who often describe children with this problem as inattentive or as having lower levels of intelligence.
What is the typical profile of a child with working memory impairments?
In a classroom, common characteristics of working memory impairment include:
*Low abilities in literacy and numeracy
*Frequently failure to complete learning activities
*Frequently failure to remember instructions
*Normal social integration with peers
*Very reserved in group settings, rarely volunteer information
On the one hand, working memory allows us to identify those with unrecognised potential, and on the other hand, to aid those who were previously considered ‘unmotivated’ or ‘daydreamers’.
Those words, plus inattentive, ADD, and not focused were all ways that I and her teachers used to describe her. I’d shake my head and because she wasn’t being disruptive or destructive in the classroom, we’d usually have a good natured laugh about it before I’d go home and bang my head against the wall.
“It could be that working-memory problems give rise to observable behavioral symptoms of ADHD: distractibility and also poor academic achievement,” she says. Working-memory deficits might also underpin some reading disabilities, as it controls the ability to recall words read earlier in a sentence, says Tannock.
Many children and adults with attention deficits report that they have trouble remembering events that took place within the past 24 hours. Students also often have “gaps” in their knowledge of basic skills because they tune in and out in the classroom. They are often reluctant to engage in tasks, such as schoolwork and homework, which require sustained mental effort. Even when children with attention deficits attend to the appropriate information, they may only attend at a very superficial level. Therefore, they fail to elaborate on the incoming information. They do not activate prior knowledge and relate it to the to-be-learned information. For example, if a student is reading about the Battle of New Orleans, he may fail to retrieve information he already knows about war, New Orleans or Andrew Jackson from his long-term memory store. This failure to sufficiently elaborate on incoming information often results in deficits in long-term memory storage and retrieval.
Students who have deficits in encoding information in memory may have trouble remembering directions or what they have just read. They may also have trouble remembering what their teachers said during class lectures. Further, they may have trouble remembering what others said during conversations. Their deficits may be more pronounced in certain sensory systems or modalities, such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most of the children I see in the clinic who are having school problems have relative weaknesses in their auditory short-term memory, and because much of the information that is presented in the classroom is presented in an auditory/verbal format, this weakness leads to significant functional problems for them.
Deficits in working memory may be manifested in a number of ways in the school setting. Students may have trouble with following through on directions even if they understood them. They may have trouble with solving math calculation problems that involve multiple steps, such as long division or problems in algebra, because in order to solve these problems they need to access information about math facts from long-term memory while remembering what they have just done and what they need to do next. They often have tremendous trouble with word problems in math because they are unable to keep all the information on their mental “plate” while they are deciding what information is most relevant and what process they need to use to solve the problem. They may have functional problems with reading comprehension because they fail to remember the sentences they just read while reading the sentence they are reading. Writing composition is often an arduous task for them. It requires them to retrieve their ideas from long-term memory while simultaneously recalling rules about capitalization, punctuation and grammar and writing their ideas down. In class, they must remember what their teacher has said while taking notes. They must remember the teacher’s questions while searching long-term memory for the answer. If they are looking up a word in the dictionary, they must remember the word while looking it up. Similarly, when they are answering questions in the back of their textbook chapters, they must remember the question while searching the chapter for the answer.
Uh, yeah. Once, someone asked Naturalist if she’d been outside the US. And this girl with vivid memories of pigeons in Venezia and glaciers in Switzerland got a puzzled look on her face and said, “No.” Later, when I reminded her of our trips she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Yeah, I forgot about all that right then”.
When I ask her what happened on a certain day, and it is still that day, she’ll look at me and say, “Ask me in two days, that’s when I’ll remember it better.”
Sometimes she’ll come out with some facts and when I ask her where she learned it, she’ll say, “A year ago. But sometimes my memories take the fast way into my brain, and sometimes they take the slow way in. That one went in last year but only came out right now!”
And this, my friends, is the delight and the agony of some 2e kids. Briliantly detailed minds that may or may not remember what just happened, or what they just read, or where they just went. And if they do remember, it will be in a few days or weeks or months time.
I think the most significant roadblock with Naturalist is her low working memory. Sometimes she just can’t access the quick and gifted side of herself. Luckily there are ways to improve working memory, and things that can be done about it. But this post is already long enough, so I’ll save that for another day. I will leave you with some other great reads about working memory to tide you over…
If you recognize yourself or your child in these descriptions, come on over and join us at the Out of the Box Thinkers group on Yahoo. You can ask me more detailed questions about it, and I may (or may not) remember what you’re talking about.