harvard university working memory case study

“Building the Brain’s Air Traffic Control System”: A Harvard University Working Memory Case Study

A recently released Harvard University working memory case study thoroughly and exhaustively investigated the way in which early experiences shape the development of executive function in the human brain. To call the study “exhaustive” is really an understatement; with some 11,000-plus words devoted to the core material, it would take a great deal of time to go through every aspect of these pages…but we’ll do our best within the context of this blog to break down the essential ingredients of the study into a more compact summary.

As adults, our capacities to multitask, exhibit self-control, follow instructions and directions that have multiple steps and stay focused on what we are doing despite ever-present distractions underpin our everyday lives. Indeed, these are vital day-to-day functions that are required for success in daily life and work; we need them and rely on them in all areas of our lives. Without them, one could not work through monumental issues and make decisions, chisel away at laborious yet vital tasks, make plans and adjust them when necessary and so forth. Further, children need to develop these skills in order to meet the many challenges they will face on the road to becoming “productive, contributing members” of their communities.

This is where early experiences shape the development of executive function.

With the title of this study being “Building the Brain’s Air Traffic Control System,” the first area of concentration focused on working memory and the way in which it defines the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our heads over short periods of time. In so doing, it provides a mental surface upon which we can place important information so that it is ready to use in the course of our everyday lives, while enabling us to, for example:

  • Remember a phone number long enough to dial it
  • Return to a place in a magazine article before someone interrupted us
  • Recall whether we had added the salt to what we were cooking before being interrupted

Likewise, working memory enables children to, for example:

  • Remember and connect information from one paragraph to the next
  • Perform an arithmetic problem with several steps
  • Keep track of the moves and make a logical next step in a game of checkers
  • Follow instructions with several steps devoid of reminders (i.e. “Go to your cubbies, put away your storybooks, bring back your arithmetic books and open them to page 30”)

Executive Functions

The Harvard case study found that by scientists who study these functions, three dimensions are frequently “highlighted” – Cognitive or Mental Flexibility, Inhibitory Control, and Working Memory. According to the study, in most real-world scenarios these three functions are not entirely distinct but rather work together to produce “competent executive functioning.”

Executive function skills, as assessed by the Harvard study, were found to be crucial building blocks for the early development of both cognitive and social capacities.

In Summary

Kindergarten and primary grade elementary teachers – in addition to early care and educational professionals – would indeed be better equipped to understand and address learning and behavioral challenges in their classroom if they garnered professional training in the development of executive function skills. And while teacher programs, including degree implementations in schools of education, currently devote little or no time to instruction about the development of executive function skills, teachers of young children are often the first to recognize serious problems with following instructions, staying organized, focusing attention and controlling impulses that require well-developed working memory.

It has been concluded that adding assessments of executive function skills to the portfolio of evaluation tools used in early childhood programs would not only provide vital data with regard to program planning, but would also encourage attention to be paid to this critical domain of skill development.

Read the full case study.