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Key to Greatness is Working Memory, Not Practice

By Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on October 6, 2011

Key to Greatness is Working Memory, Not PracticeEven the most neophyte computer user knows that the more RAM a system has, the better its performance. A new research study uses a similar comparison as one expert believes that an individual’s working memory capacity is the deciding factor in determining whether a person is good or great.

Dr. Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State scientist, has 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.

Hambrick’s opinion is contrary to a popular viewpoint that practice, and more practice, is the “x quotient” — an opinion expressed in best-selling books by authors David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell.

Hambrick suggests working memory capacity — which is closely related to general intelligence — is the deciding factor between good and great. Working memory refers to the brain’s temporary storage and manipulation of information for complex cognitive tasks like language comprehension, learning and reasoning.

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.”

In the paper, which appears in the research journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Hambrick noted that both Gladwell and Brooks argued that intelligence only goes so far.

“A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 IQ, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success,” Brooks writes in “The Social Animal.”

Hambrick’s response: “David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell are simply wrong. The evidence is quite clear: A high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage — and the higher the better.”

Research has shown that intelligence has both genetic and environmental origins, Hambrick said, yet “for a very long time we have tried and failed to come up with ways to boost people’s intelligence.”

Hambrick and his fellow researchers continue to study the issue. “The jury’s still out on whether you can improve your general intelligence,” he said.

“We hold out hope that cognitive training of some sort may produce these benefits. But we have yet to find the magic bullet.”

Source: Michigan State University

 

APA Reference
Nauert, R. (2011). Key to Greatness is Working Memory, Not Practice. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/10/06/key-to-greatness-is-working-memory-not-practice/30110.html