How can “working memory” hold me back?

Computer internal RAM cards

What is working memory?  It’s like RAM in a computer!
Why is this important to musicians?  We live and die by our working memory. However, cognitive horsepower can sap energy, waste time, and slow us down.

This is the second of several entries on Life Skills, inspired by the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock.  It’s an excellent book.


And while you’re here, check out the Reeds page — and read the glowing Reviews!  Avoid machine-made, mass produced 2×4, buzzy monstrosities — check out the oboe and bassoon reed options and try one!  Visit the Reeds page to purchase.


As mentioned in the first entry in this series, Is overthinking possible?, “working memory” comes from our prefrontal cortex, and is responsible for our executive functions (juggling information retrieved from different cortexes in order to arrive at a balanced conclusion).  In fact, a common definition for “intelligence” is “the ability to process two or more conflicting thoughts simultaneously”.  However, “working memory” can hold us back.

“Mental horsepower” — your prefrontal cortex gives you the ability to churn information retrieved from your storage, like computer Random Access Memory.  Those with well-exercised or genetically-strong RAM can think through problems much more thoroughly than others, but they might miss the simplest solution — they can’t see the forest for the trees.

An example: children develop their working memory by their mid-to-late teen years.  In the book Choke, two children, 5 and 12 years old, are presented with this riddle.

Two strings hang from the ceiling but are too far apart to allow a person to hold one and walk to the other.  On a table under the strings are a book of matches, a screwdriver, and a few pieces of cotton.  How can you tie the strings together?

Each person came up with a different answer.  The older decided to use the screwdriver as a pendulum, tying the string to it and swinging it towards the other, catching it, and tying them together.  Many older individuals would only view the screwdriver as a device for rotating screws, missing the pendulum connection.  However, the younger child chose simply to stand on the table.

High-powered minds usually choose the most complex route to a solution when a simpler answer is right in front of their nose.  They expend a lot of energy in the process.  They also don’t learn as effectively as those who have less cognitive horsepower, either by predisposition or by having the skills to turn it down.

Take for instance language learning.  Young children learn second languages astonishingly quickly.  Adults often think of words as whole units based on letters, interrelated phrases, idioms, etc. but children only have the horsepower to consider generalities – inflections and the more obvious auditory components of a language.  It’s the equivalent of squinting when looking at a picture — the specifics disappear and the generalities become more noticeable.  You can use this to your advantage when learning music — the audience only has time to perceive the generalities in most circumstances, for example.  Adults and later teens learn best when the new skill is digested in small chunks of words rather than whole sentences.  So, how can we natural-born thinkers learn to free our minds from these boundaries?

Of course, strong working memory often associates with strong academic achievement.  If one’s job requires computing many differing pieces of information, success will come easier.  Learning to turn off — or distract — this process can unlock enormous mental potential.  You’ve actually noticed this many times; sudden clarity in the midst of a flurry of activity, or frustration when trying to study alone in a quiet room.  Some might consider it ADHD, but without pathologizing your unique mental setup, you can easily find your own center.

Adults find success in learning a language when they distract themselves from thinking too hard.  In one study in Choke, students learning American sign language were asked to count auditory beeps while learning new hand signs and compared with those who learned the signs alone.  You can guess the results — the distracted students not only could reproduce the signs faster and more accurately but were able to use them in new combinations with less difficulty.  Golfers who sing to themselves when trying to sink a difficult putt will more consistently hit the hole.  Cellists who suddenly think of their grocery list can slide up to a high note very accurately.  Runners can achieve much longer distances when counting cat’s eye reflectors or chanting a mantra.

So, how will you learn to harness your childlike creative brain?


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Image of Corsair computer memory is by Victorrocha (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons