Working Memory and Intelligence

Intelligence tends nowadays to be separated into 2 components: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.

Fluid intelligence refers to general reasoning and problem-solving functions, and is often described as executive function, or working memory capacity.

Crystallized intelligence refers to cognitive functions associated with knowledge.

Different IQ tests measure fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence to varying extents, but the most common disproportionately measures crystallized intelligence.

Increasing evidence suggests that even fluid intelligence is significantly affected by environmental factors and emotions.

You may have heard of “g”. It’s the closest we’ve come to that elusive attribute known as “intelligence”, but it is in fact a psychometric construct, that is, we surmise its presence from the way in which scores on various cognitive tests positively correlate.

In other words, we don’t really know what it is (hence the fact it is called “g”, rather than something more intelligible), and in fact, it is wrong to think of it as a thing. What it is, is a manifestation of some property or properties of the brain — and we don’t know what these are.

Various properties have been suggested, of course. Speed of processing; synaptic plasticity; fluid cognition. These are all plausible, but experimental studies have failed to provide clear evidence for any of them. The closest has been fluid cognition, or fluid intelligence, which is paired with crystallized intelligence. These two terms point to a useful distinction.

Fluid intelligence refers to cognitive functions associated with general reasoning and problem-solving, and is often described as executive function, or working memory capacity.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, refers to cognitive functions associated with previously acquired knowledge in long-term store.

There is of course some interplay between these functions, but for the most part they are experimentally separable.

There are a couple of points worth noting.

For a start, different IQ tests measure fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence to varying extents – the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test, for example, predominantly measures fluid intelligence, while the WAIS disproportionately measures crystallized intelligence. An analysis of the most widely used intelligence test batteries for children found that about 1/3 of the subtests measure crystallized intelligence, an additional ¼ measure knowledge and reading/writing skills, while only 7% directly measure fluid intelligence, with perhaps another 10% measuring skills that have a fluid intelligence component – and nearly all the fluid subtests were found in one particular test battery, the W-J-R.

The so-called Flynn effect – the rapid rise in IQ over the past century – is for the most part an increase in fluid intelligence, not crystallized intelligence. While it has been hypothesized that fluid intelligence paves the way for the development of crystallized intelligence, it should be noted that the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence is present from a very early age, and the two functions have quite different growth patterns over the life of an individual.

So, what we’re saying is that most IQ tests provide little measure of fluid intelligence, although fluid intelligence appears to reflect “g” more closely than any other attribute, and that although crystallized intelligence is assumed to reflect environment (e.g., education) far more than fluid intelligence, it is fluid intelligence that has been rising, not crystallized intelligence.

In fact, for this and other reasons, it seems that fluid intelligence is far more affected by environment than has been considered.

I’ll leave you to ponder on the implications of this. Let me make just one more point.

The brain areas known to be important for fluid cognition are part of an interconnected system associated with emotion and stress response, and it is hypothesized that functions heretofore considered distinct from emotional arousal, such as reasoning and planning, are in fact very much part of a system in which emotional response is involved.

We’re not saying here that emotions can disrupt your reasoning processes, we all know that. What is being suggested is more radical – that emotions are part and parcel of the reasoning process. Okay, I always knew this, but it’s nice to see science coming along and providing some evidence.

The point about the close interaction between emotional reactivity and fluid intelligence is that stress may have a significant effect on fluid intelligence.

And I’ll leave you to ponder the implications of that.

References: 

Miyake, A., Friedman, N.P., Rettinger, D.A., Shah, P., & Hegarty, M. 2001. How are Visuospatial Working Memory, Executive Functioning, and Spatial Abilities Related? A Latent-Variable Analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology – General, 130(4).