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Memory, Cognitive Abilities and Executive Functions

Thinking menA misconception we encounter often is that “memory” is the only, or most important, “thing” that our brains do. And the only one we need to care for.

We have a variety of cognitive abilities, from attention to processing speed to problem-solving to emotional self-regulation to, yes, memory. (And more). Even memory is not one whole thing, but has different types and processes: working memory vs. long-term, auditory vs. visual, events vs. facts vs. skills.

I say this in the context of this article and video you may already have seen, where a young chimp displays amazing visual working memory capability, beating humans.

– Read insightful blog post here. Quote

“This study shows that chimps can memorize at a glance the numerals presented on the screen, and that they can do so just as well – and even better – than humans can. Note that the superior performance came from a young chimp, and that the performance of older chimps on the same task was more similar to that of humans.”

– Watch video

Impressive, isn’t yet? Yet, a clear indication that memory is not all that matters. Please compare the “intelligence” (in any way you want to define it), the quality of thinking, displayed by those apes, with the one displayed in this recent interview with Bill Drayton at Good Magazine, founder of Ashoka and one of the parents of the social entrepreneurship movement. Quotes:

– “Ashoka (and all of us in the GOOD community) are serving the most profound historical transformation in the structure of society since the agricultural revolution–the shift from a world led by small elites to an “everyone a change-maker” global society.”

– “Social entrepreneurship is the field Ashoka has been building for 27 years that helps the world’s most promising new ideas and the social entrepreneurs behind them get started, succeed over their long life cycles, work and collaborate together through the local to global community we are building.”

Full interview: here (via Huffington Post)

You can read more about Ashoka at “Everyone a Changemaker”, Ashoka and Google

Some important cognitive abilities are what neuropsychologists call Executive Functions, which reside in our frontal lobes (behind your forehead), the most recent part of our brains in evolutionary terms. Some examples:

– Planning: foresight in devising multi-step strategies.

– Flexibility: capacity for quickly switching to the appropriate mental mode.

– Inhibition: the ability to withstand distraction, and internal urges.

– Anticipation: prediction based on pattern recognition.

– Critical evaluation: logical analysis.

– Working memory: capacity to hold and manipulate information “on-line” in our minds in real time.

– Fuzzy logic: capacity to choose with incomplete information.

– Divided attention: ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

– Decision-making: both quality and speed.

A highly recommended book, if you are interested in learning more about Executive Functions and Frontal Lobes, is The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind , by Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg. You can read an in-depth review here.

On a related note, you may enjoy this Time Magazine special on What Makes Us Moral.

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