09:30
TEDGlobal 2013

Peter Doolittle: How your "working memory" makes sense of the world

Filmed:

"Life comes at us very quickly, and what we need to do is take that amorphous flow of experience and somehow extract meaning from it." In this funny, enlightening talk, educational psychologist Peter Doolittle details the importance -- and limitations -- of your "working memory," that part of the brain that allows us to make sense of what's happening right now.

- Educational psychology professor
Peter Doolittle is striving to understand the processes of human learning. Full bio

So yesterday, I was out in the street
00:12
in front of this building,
00:14
and I was walking down the sidewalk,
00:17
and I had company, several of us,
00:20
and we were all abiding by the rules
00:22
of walking down sidewalks.
00:23
We're not talking each other. We're facing forward.
00:26
We're moving.
00:28
When the person in front of me slows down.
00:29
And so I'm watching him, and he slows down,
00:33
and finally he stops.
00:35
Well, that wasn't fast enough for me,
00:36
so I put on my turn signal, and I walked around him,
00:38
and as I walked, I looked to see what he was doing,
00:42
and he was doing this.
00:45
He was texting,
00:47
and he couldn't text and walk at the same time.
00:49
Now we could approach this
00:51
from a working memory perspective
00:53
or from a multitasking perspective.
00:55
We're going to do working memory today.
00:57
Now, working memory
01:00
is that part of our consciousness that we are
01:02
aware of at any given time of day.
01:05
You're going it right now.
01:07
It's not something we can turn off.
01:09
If you turn it off, that's called a coma, okay?
01:11
So right now, you're doing just fine.
01:14
Now working memory has four basic components.
01:17
It allows us to store some immediate experiences
01:19
and a little bit of knowledge.
01:22
It allows us to reach back
into our long-term memory
01:24
and pull some of that in as we need it,
01:27
mixes it, processes it
01:29
in light of whatever our current goal is.
01:31
Now the current goal isn't something like,
01:33
I want to be president or the best surfer in the world.
01:35
It's more mundane. I'd like that cookie,
01:37
or I need to figure out how to get into my hotel room.
01:40
Now working memory capacity
01:43
is our ability to leverage that,
01:45
our ability to take what we know
01:47
and what we can hang onto
01:50
and leverage it in ways that allow us to satisfy
01:51
our current goal.
01:55
Now working memory capacity
01:57
has a fairly long history,
01:59
and it's associated with a lot of positive effects.
02:01
People with high working memory capacity
02:03
tend to be good storytellers.
02:05
They tend to solve and do well
on standardized tests,
02:07
however important that is.
02:11
They're able to have high levels of writing ability.
02:14
They're also able to reason at high levels.
02:18
So what we're going to do here
is play a little bit with some of that.
02:20
So I'm going to ask you to perform a couple tasks,
02:23
and we're going to take your
working memory out for a ride.
02:26
You up for that? Okay.
02:29
I'm going to give you five words,
02:32
and I just want you to hang on to them.
02:34
Don't write them down. Just hang on to them.
02:36
Five words.
02:37
While you're hanging on to them,
I'm going to ask you to answer three questions.
02:39
I want to see what happens with those words.
02:42
So here's the words:
02:44
tree,
02:46
highway,
02:49
mirror,
02:52
Saturn
02:54
and electrode.
02:57
So far so good?
02:59
Okay. What I want you to do
03:01
is I want you to tell me what the answer is
03:02
to 23 times eight.
03:06
Just shout it out.
03:08
(Mumbling) (Laughter)
03:12
In fact it's -- (Mumbling) -- exactly. (Laughter)
03:16
All right. I want you to take out your left hand
03:18
and I want you to go, "One, two, three, four, five,
03:22
six, seven, eight, nine, 10."
03:24
It's a neurological test,
just in case you were wondering.
03:26
All right, now what I want you to do
03:29
is to recite the last five letters
03:31
of the English alphabet backwards.
03:33
You should have started with Z.
03:38
(Laughter)
03:40
All right. How many people here are still pretty sure
03:43
you've got all five words?
03:45
Okay. Typically we end up with about less than half,
03:48
right, which is normal. There will be a range.
03:51
Some people can hang on to five.
03:53
Some people can hang on to 10.
03:55
Some will be down to two or three.
03:56
What we know is this is really important
to the way we function, right?
03:58
And it's going to be really important here at TED
04:02
because you're going to be exposed
to so many different ideas.
04:04
Now the problem that we have
04:07
is that life comes at us,
04:09
and it comes at us very quickly,
04:11
and what we need to do is to take that amorphous
04:13
flow of experience and somehow
04:17
extract meaning from it
04:18
with a working memory
04:20
that's about the size of a pea.
04:21
Now don't get me wrong,
working memory is awesome.
04:23
Working memory allows us
04:26
to investigate our current experience
04:28
as we move forward.
04:30
It allows us to make sense of the world around us.
04:32
But it does have certain limits.
04:35
Now working memory is great
for allowing us to communicate.
04:37
We can have a conversation,
04:41
and I can build a narrative around that
04:42
so I know where we've been and where we're going
04:45
and how to contribute to this conversation.
04:47
It allows us to problem-solve, critical think.
04:49
We can be in the middle of a meeting,
04:51
listen to somebody's presentation, evaluate it,
04:53
decide whether or not we like it,
04:55
ask follow-up questions.
04:57
All of that occurs within working memory.
04:58
It also allows us to go to the store
05:02
and allows us to get milk and eggs and cheese
05:04
when what we're really looking for
05:07
is Red Bull and bacon. (Laughter)
05:09
Gotta make sure we're getting what we're looking for.
05:12
Now, a central issue with working memory
05:15
is that it's limited.
05:18
It's limited in capacity, limited in duration,
05:19
limited in focus.
05:21
We tend to remember about four things.
05:23
Okay? It used to be seven,
05:26
but with functional MRIs, apparently it's four,
05:28
and we were overachieving.
05:30
Now we can remember those four things
05:32
for about 10 to 20 seconds
05:34
unless we do something with it,
05:36
unless we process it,
unless we apply it to something,
05:38
unless we talk to somebody about it.
05:40
When we think about working memory,
05:44
we have to realize that this limited capacity
05:47
has lots of different impacts on us.
05:51
Have you ever walked from one room to another
05:53
and then forgotten why you're there?
05:56
You do know the solution to that, right?
05:59
You go back to that original room. (Laughter)
06:01
Have you ever forgotten your keys?
06:04
You ever forgotten your car?
06:08
You ever forgotten your kids?
06:10
Have you ever been involved in a conversation,
06:13
and you realize that the conversation to your left
06:15
is actually more interesting? (Laughter)
06:17
So you're nodding and you're smiling,
06:20
but you're really paying attention
to this one over here,
06:22
until you hear that last word go up,
06:24
and you realize,
06:26
you've been asked a question. (Laughter)
06:28
And you're really hoping the answer is no,
06:31
because that's what you're about to say.
06:33
All of that talks about working memory,
06:36
what we can do and what we can't do.
06:39
We need to realize that working memory
06:41
has a limited capacity,
06:42
and that working memory capacity itself
is how we negotiate that.
06:44
We negotiate that through strategies.
06:47
So what I want to do is talk a little bit
about a couple of strategies here,
06:49
and these will be really important
06:52
because you are now in an
information target-rich environment
06:53
for the next several days.
06:57
Now the first part of this that we need to think about
06:59
and we need to process our existence, our life,
07:02
immediately and repeatedly.
07:05
We need to process what's going on
07:06
the moment it happens, not 10 minutes later,
07:09
not a week later, at the moment.
07:12
So we need to think about, well,
do I agree with him?
07:14
What's missing? What would I like to know?
07:18
Do I agree with the assumptions?
07:20
How can I apply this in my life?
07:23
It's a way of processing what's going on
07:24
so that we can use it later.
07:26
Now we also need to repeat it. We need to practice.
07:28
So we need to think about it here.
07:31
In between, we want to talk to people about it.
07:34
We're going to write it down,
and when you get home,
07:36
pull out those notes and think about them
07:39
and end up practicing over time.
07:41
Practice for some reason
became a very negative thing.
07:43
It's very positive.
07:46
The next thing is, we need to think elaboratively
07:47
and we need to think illustratively.
07:50
Oftentimes, we think that we have to relate
new knowledge to prior knowledge.
07:52
What we want to do is spin that around.
07:56
We want to take all of our existence
07:58
and wrap it around that new knowledge
07:59
and make all of these connections
and it becomes more meaningful.
08:01
We also want to use imagery.
We are built for images.
08:05
We need to take advantage of that.
08:08
Think about things in images,
08:10
write things down that way.
08:12
If you read a book, pull things up.
08:14
I just got through reading "The Great Gatsby,"
08:16
and I have a perfect idea of what he looks like
08:18
in my head, so my own version.
08:21
The last one is organization and support.
08:24
We are meaning-making machines. It's what we do.
08:26
We try to make meaning out of
everything that happens to us.
08:28
Organization helps, so we need to structure
08:32
what we're doing in ways that make sense.
08:34
If we are providing knowledge and experience,
08:36
we need to structure that.
08:38
And the last one is support.
08:40
We all started as novices.
08:42
Everything we do is an
approximation of sophistication.
08:44
We should expect it to change over time.
We have to support that.
08:47
The support may come in asking people questions,
08:50
giving them a sheet of paper that has
an organizational chart on it
08:52
or has some guiding images,
08:56
but we need to support it.
08:58
Now, the final piece of this, the take-home message
09:00
from a working memory capacity standpoint is this:
09:06
what we process, we learn.
09:09
If we're not processing life, we're not living it.
09:12
Live life. Thank you.
09:16
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Peter Doolittle - Educational psychology professor
Peter Doolittle is striving to understand the processes of human learning.

Why you should listen

Peter Doolittle is a professor of educational psychology in the School of Education at Virginia Tech, where he is also the executive director of the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research. He teaches classes such as Cognition and Instruction, Constructivism and Education, Multimedia Cognition and College Teaching, but his research mainly focuses on learning in multimedia environments and the role of "working memory."

Doolittle has taught educational psychology around the world. He is the executive editor of the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and the co-executive editor of the International Journal of ePortfolio.

More profile about the speaker
Peter Doolittle | Speaker | TED.com