I am always amazed when I recall that Albert Einstein developed his theories of relativity with what he called thought experiments (Einstein, 1920).

Einstein was not only very intelligent, he had excellent working memory, defined as “the set of mental processes holding limited information in a temporarily accessible state in service of cognition” (Cowan et al., 2005). The laboratory in which he conducted his thought experiments was his working memory. As a child, his intellectual development was enabled by his gradual accretion of knowledge, supported by the development of his working memory capacity, both in terms of his ability to attend and maintain focus, and in terms of his ability to consider an increasing breadth of ideas and facts.

Working memory is crucially dependent on minimally adequate levels of attentional capacity (Saults & Cowan, 2007). In turn, aptitudes and intellectual capacity are dependent on working memory; “[i]ndividual differences in the measured scope of attention are important for individual differences in aptitudes” (Cowan et al., 2005).

Attention is necessary but not sufficient for the full development of working memory, beginning in early childhood, and becoming extremely important at age 8 or 9, with the advent of complex reasoning tasks involving the integration of information obtained aurally, through reading and visual encoding of pictorial information, and by demonstration. To the degree that task complexity and rate of information flow increases in school and in later work settings, the importance of working memory capacity accelerates.

Individual differences in working memory capacity development are related to differences in educational development. To the degree that attention is impaired by attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), working memory capacity will be limited, leading to problems with reasoning that persist even after the attention decrement has been successfully addressed with medication. This is important because, although working memory imposes a ceiling on intellectual capacity, it can be considered a skill, a feature of the person that can be developed. As such, once the ADD/ADHD problem has been addressed, remediation of working-memory deficits should be undertaken. As working memory improves, the child should be encouraged to re-visit challenging intellectual tasks and will find that these are more easily handled.

  • Cowan, N., Elliott, E. M., Scott Saults, J., Morey, C. C., Mattox, S., Hismjatullina, A., et al. (2005). On the capacity of attention: its estimation and its role in working memory and cognitive aptitudes. Cogn Psychol, 51(1), 42–100.
  • Einstein, A. (1920). Relativity: The Special and General Theory. London: Methuen & Co, Ltd.
  • Saults, J., & Cowan, N. (2007). A central capacity limit to the simultaneous storage of visual and auditory arrays in working memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(4), 663–684.