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The working memory

Working memory temporarily stores the information you are working on. But it is not just a simple storage. The working memory enables you to create new thoughts, change them, combine them, search them, or any other function that helps you navigate your life.

By enabling these functions, working memory upholds your thinking, planning, learning, and decision-making.


Working Memory

The working memory model of Alan Baddeley divides the working memory into four components:

  1. The phonological loop. It is mostly the temporary storage of sounds.
  2. The visuospatial sketchpad. The sketchpad stores two- and three-dimensional images of objects.
  3. The central executive. It is responsible for directing attention and manipulating information. It re-arranges ideas and applies the rules of grammar, logic or algebra to find a solution.
  4. The Episodic buffer.

To learn, you must first understand. To understand,

  • your phonological loop must keep track of the sounds of the words;
  • your central executive must continually update the sequences as you go along;
  • the meanings need to be integrated, so you understand.

If any of these processes fail, you'll get confused.

If you practice this skill, you can improve it. To set out how to improve your working memory, it is useful to know how you can measure it.

There is a difference between short-term memory capacity and working memory capacity.

  • Short-term capacity is your ability to temporarily store small amounts of information - digits, letters, words, symbols, etc. The average human span is 4 items; the digit span is 7 digits.
  • Working memory capacity is your combined ability to store and manipulate information.
The phonological loop stores sound

A phonological loop is a kind of short-term memory storage that stores sound. A conversation, listening to music, and understanding a lecture depends on your phonological loop.

As you read, your phonological loop uses sub vocalisation (your internal voice) to translate visual information (what you read) into auditory information, which is then processed to extract meaning. If your internal voice is disrupted, you will find it hard to maintain information in your phonological loop, and your comprehension will suffer.

  • Music interferes with your digit span. Studies found that students performed better when they revised in a quiet environment than the students who listened to music.
  • Many students listen to music while learning because it helps reduce anxiety. Music could also drown out external noise.
  • The recommendation is that is you avoid music when studying in a quiet environment. If you don't have a quiet environment, reduce noise by using earplugs.

The visuospatial sketchpad is essential for understanding mathematical, science, technology and engineering subjects.

You can improve your visuospatial working memory. There are two broad strategies for approaching visuospatial problems.

  • A holistic strategy demands the most working-memory.
  • An analytic strategy consists of noticing the relationship between patterns in a step-by-step way. Break complex tasks into smaller steps and write the steps onto paper.

You can use your visuospatial sketchpad to help your phonological loop and vice versa.

  • Instead of remembering a shopping list, you can throw it into one picture. A list of peppers, milk, chicken and mustard can be visualised as a mustard-covered chicken swimming in milk with peppers.
  • Instead of remembering scientific text from chemistry by summarising the main points, using a drawing-construction strategy is more effective. But the quality of drawings is essential for the technique to be effective.
  • Allocation of attention. Multitasking can generally harm our performance. Each time you switch tasks, it takes some time and energy. (You have to shift your goals and reactivate the rules for the activity.) Lots of task switching will add up to lost time during a day.
  • Manipulation of information. Extra manipulation of information can make your understanding suffer. If you study from multiple sources (several textbooks), it might be good to integrate the information in one place.
Chunking is the secret to expertise

The idea behind chunking is to group underlying items by some sort of meaning or structure. For example, RTCTAIILFSO is easier remembered when it is regrouped to FRAC-TO-LIS-TIC.

  • You can use chunking to memorise phone numbers, passwords or PIN codes by dividing the given sequence into chunks containing a maximum of 4 items each. A phone number could be split with dashes like this: 743-293-045
  • One chunking technique to help your learning is organisation. This is where you categorise unstructured study material into meaningful groups.

Chunking is the secret behind mastering any subject. Chunking draws on your long-term memory resources. The more knowledge you have stored, the less information you need to process with your working memory, and the easier it will be to understand and remember your study material.

To master any subject:

  1. First, build solid foundations of the basics (the elementary chunks such as meanings and concepts)
  2. Then master the underlying sub-skills.
  3. Then attempt to form increasingly more complex chunks.

Cognitive load is the effort used by the working memory to process information. The working memory capacity is limited: If it is overloaded with information, you will fail to understand.

There are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic load. It is the level of difficulty of the subject. Reduce the intrinsic load by gaining more knowledge of the underlying chunks.
  • Extrinsic load. It is associated with the way the study material is presented. Use a goal-free approach by first playing with the parts.
  • Germane load. It is the effort you have to make to construct integrated chunks of information from the concepts in your study material.

Anxiety is a major cause of cognitive load. Instead of your working memory focusing on the task at hand, your short-term memory is filled with irrelevant information. i.e. maths is hard; I hate math; I want to give up.

  • The effect that anxiety has on your performance depends on the beliefs you have about it. If you believe math anxiety will help you perform better, then your performance will not be impacted.
  • Reframe your mindset to excitement. "I'm excited."

From the moment we are born, we are always learning new skills. We see it in formal capacities in school or on the job, and informally, like learning from you buddy how to grill a steak.

However, learning is a skill that we can improve upon. The growing number of self-taught professionals is a testament to that.

How to Learn A New Skill: A Real-World Guide to Mastering Anything

Tony Robbins
skill you want to master in this day and age we live in, if you want to have an extraordinary life, is the ability to learn rapi

Be very selective in the skill you're trying to masker to avoid sabotaging your success:

  • Make sure it's applicable: The perfect skill either solves a problem you have or scratches an itch you have.
  • Be very specific: Specific goals are easier to pursue than vague counterparts. To set yourself up, narrow your skill down as much as possible. Ask what specific problem are you trying to solve, and find out what aspects you find most fascinating.
  • Make sure you love the process, not just the outcome: Pick a skill where the road is as exciting as the outcome. Then plan out celebration points along the way.

In school, your teachers worked out a lesson plan and made sure you were aiming in the right direction. When you're teaching yourself, you have to do it yourself.

  • Deconstruct and select: Every skill can be broken down into pieces. Find out what are the minimal learnable segments you should start with for success and focus on that first.
  • Find a mentor: If you're unfamiliar with a skill, you may not know what is worth learning from the start. Find a mentor to help you.
  • Stop learning and start doing: Once you know the basics, put them into practice wherever you can.

To save the time of both of you, consider asking your mentor these questions:

  • Thinking back to when you were just getting started, what parts of your skill were the most frustrating to learn?
  • Which of those do you use on a daily/weekly basis, and which have you forgotten?
  • What parts of your skill did you worry about the most when you were getting started that you now feel are unnecessary?
  • When looking at other experts in your field, what specific capabilities help you distinguish experts from non-experts?

To make it count, practice deliberately. Focus on specific elements and work on them until they improve.

Don't go all out, dedicating every waking moment to your new passion. Pace yourself. You will not only avoid burnout by spreading out your training, but you will also increase your performance.

Feedback is vitally important to evaluate how well you're doing and to identify areas for improvement. Faster feedback is always better.

  • Share work publicly: Even if it feels scary, sharing your work is essential for improvement.
  • Be very specific: Pick a particular element and ask for direct feedback.
  • Ask for negative feedback: "What is one aspect that could be improved?"
  • Don't make it about you: It's helpful to remove yourself from the question when asking for feedback. "What is the one thing I could've done" makes the feedback more personal and may make the person hesitant to give critical feedback.

You could follow all the advice, but if you give up after two days, you won't make progress.

  • Make a plan: When exactly are you going to practice?
  • Tell others about it…maybe: State your goal as a commitment rather than moving towards the finished product. The former commits you to an attitude while the second may indicate that you've already taken steps, which may cause you to slow down.
  • Join a group: Groups are very motivating and make you more likely to persevere.
Epistemic wellbeing

We normally think of wellbeing as physical and mental health. But another way to think about our wellbeing is in terms of knowledge - known as our epistemic wellbeing.

Knowledge affects our ability to navigate the world and accomplish our goals. Epistemic wellbeing is the sense that you'll be able to know what you want and need to know for your life to proceed well. If you have access to good sources of information and understand how to get your questions answered, you have a high degree of epistemic wellbeing.

The antidote to fake news is to nourish our epistemic wellbeing | Psyche Ideas

  • Access to truths. It is the basis of epistemic wellbeing.
  • Access to trustworthy sources of information. The internet gives access to much information, but it is only useful if we can separate the truths from the falsehoods.
  • Opportunities to participate in productive dialogue. It is not enough to just passively receive information. The things we want to know about are often complex, and understanding requires more than just a one-off answer. Discussions also lead to new questions and interests.

The amount of false and misleading information we're exposed to by traditional and social media could make us feel like we don't have good access to truths. The rise of conspiratorial thinking - where people are willing to believe wild theories, is another aspect that contributes to our decreased sense of epistemic wellbeing.

In trying to address the epistemic crisis, many feel unable to engage in dialogue and find alternative opportunities to do so, resulting in more extreme views.

  • We're told to double-check the information online and to look for indications that our sources are trustworthy,
  • It's perhaps worthwhile to develop a habit of auditing one's epistemic habits. Consider how you acquire information: Is it likely to lead you to the truth, or is it telling you things you want to hear?

Research suggests placing self-imposed limitations can boost creativity. 

It forces your brain to come up with creative solutions to finish a project around the parameters you’ve set.

How to Enhance Your Creative Thinking

Instead of thinking of a cut-and-dry end goal to certain situations, creative people sit back and examine the problem in different ways before beginning to work.

If you find yourself stagnating by focusing on generic problems, try to re-conceptualize the problem by focusing on a more meaningful angle.

For example: Instead of thinking “What would be something cool to paint?” rather ask, “What sort of painting evokes the feeling of loneliness that we all encounter after a break-up?”

Creating “psychological” distance may be useful for breaking through a creative block.

Try to imagine your creative task as being disconnected and distant from your current position/location - this may make the problem more accessible and can encourage higher level thinking.

Daydream, and then get back to work

Daydreaming and incubation are most effective on a project you’ve already invested a lot of creative effort into.

Incorporating breaks into your work-flow can increase your chance to come up with creative solutions to problems.

Embrace something absurd

Research suggests that reading/experiencing something absurd or surreal can help boost pattern recognition and creative thinking.

We are often in two very different states of mind when 

  • absorbing an activity and 
  • when we are trying to create something.

Turn off your “work mode” and consume more inspiration in the form of reading, watching, and observing.

From a new study on creativity in the workplace:

Creativity increased when both positive and negative emotions were running high. Next time you’re in a strong emotional state, try to sit down and focus that energy on creating something.

Get moving

Exercise can actually boost creative thinking due to its ability to get the heart pumping and put people in a positive mood.

If you’re stuck in a creative rut and want to take a break, try including exercise. 

Looking at a situation that has already occurred and asking yourself, “What could have happened?” can boost creativity for short periods of time.

According to an analysis by Jeremy Dean:

  • Analytical problems are best tackled with thinking about what could have been taken away from the situation.
  • Expansive problems benefited most from thinking about what could have been added to the situation.
  • Role mismatch.
  • Too much/too narrow end-goal restriction. 
  • Strict ration of resources, including insufficient time.
  • Lack of group diversity produces less creative results.
  • Discouragement. Too much criticism, endless evaluation and negative comments.
  • No positive feedback. Praise and positive feedback are essential for creative people, who thrive on having their ideas impact the lives of others.
Counterfactual Thinking

There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward counterfactual thinking.

  • Upward counterfactual thinking: it happens whenever we look back at a scenario and ask the "what if" questions in terms of how our life could have turned out better.
  • Downward counterfactual thinking: this is naturally the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking and it happens when we think about how things could have been worse.

What is counterfactual thinking?

  • Upward counterfactual thinking is linked with depression.
  • Downward counterfactual thinkers use their negative feelings as their motivation to become productive and better their current situations.
  • Downward counterfactual thinking can improve romantic relationships, although it is commonly associated with women.

Even though counterfactual thinking can be used to motivate us to make better choices we should always keep in mind to focus on the present and the future instead of the past.

Manage uncertainty
  • Focus on the things you can control (and ignore those that you can’t)
  • Shift from External to Internal Locus of Control. It means you perceive yourself to have more control than the environment over your life.
  • Live your life as you would normally, independent of the uncertainty. 
  • Bring certainty to the important things (and let the other things go). 

How to Manage Uncertainty | Personal Excellence

The Boot Camp Principle

The boot camp principle to get better at something id inspired by military basic training programs and it goes like this:

Go through unrelenting challenges that you are completely unprepared for, day after day, for a handful of weeks, and you'll come out strong and resilient.

Two Ways To Get Better At Something

Gentle Ramping Approach

Taking this approach to getting better at something means you have to get yourself on a self-imposed routine, where you do a little of your activity—writing, running, meditating —pushing the performance level daily. You gradually increase your mileage, so that your everyday target is just beyond what’s easy.

Retrieval is more effective than passive review

We are all apt to forget things we have learned in the past. Even memories of important events will eventually decline in accuracy.

If we want to remember things, research tells us that retrieval practice is more effective than passive review. If you have to choose how to study, actively trying to remember the facts is more effective than merely re-reading facts.

Fearing Forgetting: Should You Try to Maintain or Relearn Knowledge?

The person who uses their foreign language skills occasionally is reminded how much they've forgotten. Setting up a maintenance schedule where you practice your skills once a week may help, but few have the time to prioritize maintenance.

When you choose to specialize, remembering knowledge is less of a problem. The opposite situation is that knowledge is so well-maintained that the routines can lead you into a rut, making improvement more difficult.

It means accepting that your knowledge of old subjects will decline and that there will be a period of hard effort before they're usable at their previous level.

  • Relearning tends to be much faster than initial learning.
  • Relearning is a form of spacing practice.
  • Relearning prioritizes useful knowledge. If something is more useful, you'll find opportunities to practice it. Less useful knowledge will decay more.

Relearning is an excellent strategy for lifelong learning. The problem is the pain of rebuilding confidence. You may remember a better ability than in reality, so even doing your best with the old skill will seem sub-standard.

However, if you can push through this short-term feeling of inadequacy, relearning starts to look good.

A strategy to adopt is to embrace relearning opportunities. It may mean there's a chance you'll fail, but adopting a policy of embracing opportunities will lead to better skills in the long-run.

Acting as if you have not forgotten when you choose projects might push you to do things more often (instead of thinking you need a few weeks or relearning first.) Yet, the rustiness will undoubtedly slow you down at first, and this has to be considered.

Managing Risk Like NASA

NASA is routinely dealing with problems that are as complex as they can get. Apart from having a process about measuring creativity, or a detailed checklist to take stock of every minute detail, they also have a Risk Matrix, a powerful tool that helps to identify and manage risk.

It is a diagram that provides the ‘likelihood score’ of the potential risk, when all the risks have been identified, and has a template that makes stating the risk easy.

Managing risk with the NASA Risk Matrix

Frederick Wilcox
"Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first."

NASA identifies any potential risk using the following variables:

  1. Condition: A fact-based situation that is causing concern or doubt.
  2. Departure: The variation or potential change that the condition will cause.
  3. Asset: The project which gets delayed or affected.
  4. Consequence: The potential damage or negative impact that the ‘condition’ can have on the ‘Asset’.

The Risk Assessment has to only include facts, and not speculations or assumptions, while ensuring that the risk identification does not introduce new risks.

NASA Risk Matrix: Likelihood And Consequence

The two main factors that impact the level of risk:

  1. The Likelihood: How likely is the risk of the potential change to occur.
  2. The Consequence: The level of the impact of the departure from the original plan.

The consequence ‘scorecard’ evaluates the likelihood of the risk and the level of impact (like loss of human life, or the impact on the main goal) to determine the severity of the risk.

Mitigating Risk

Once a Risk Score is calculated based on the Risk Matrix, NASA recommends the following:

  • Lowest Risk: Put the risk on the watchlist and re-assess on a regular basis.
  • Low Risk: Perform further research and re-evaluate risk trying to better understand it, and facilitating a reduction of the same. Write a ‘risk mitigation plan’ and share it with the team.
  • Medium Risk: Along with the mitigation plan, perform continuous assessment of the risk, assign resources, and keep everyone informed.
  • High Risk: Immediately escalate to the higher authorities, letting all the stakeholders know of the same.
  • Highest Risk: Consider changing the original plan of action and shelving or delaying the project right away. Speed is of the essence and hard but unavoidable decisions have to be made to minimize damage and loss of life.
The Default Choice

While prompted to make a decision with a given set of options, a person has the freedom to refuse to actively make a choice.

The decision-making process of the person is affected by the default choice that will be automatically selected in case the person refuses to choose.

When Prompting People to Make a Choice, the Consequence of Not Choosing Matters

If a person is told about the economic incentives of their selection, they are more likely to make an active choice.

If the person is told about the pros and cons of their decision, they have a logical reason to make the desired choice, as it can minimize any potential loss.

Organizations need to understand when to provide a reward to the person making the choice to promote active choice-making, or to initiate a penalty to make them provide a concrete answer.




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