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I read an article today that led me to conclude that, in its fundamental form, most of us have brains that are robust in only one of two capacities. The best way to explain what I mean by that is to think of our brain as a computer. There are essentially two important components of any computers that we use to evaluate the computer’s power: one is hard drive, the other is RAM. The former allows storage of information; the larger the hard drive, the more information you can store in it. The latter determines how quickly the information can be processed; the higher the RAM, the more computing speed it has.

The article I read explored the possibility that learning disabilities and learning difficulties may stem from “defects in working memory — the brain’s temporary storage bin.” Working memory, according to the article, allows people to hold and manipulate a handful of items in their minds. The limit is three to five items in adults and potentially less in younger children. Because of this limit, it is important for us to hold the relevant information when utilizing the working memory. Otherwise, any extraneous information will clutter up our working memory and make us less efficient at computation. There is now evidence to suggest that people with learning difficulties may have less capacity in their working memory when compared to others without learning difficulties.

Up until I read the article, I haven’t thought of how I process information when compared to others. Although I have no proof, I believe I have a higher than normal capacity when it comes to holding the number of items in my working memory. I reasoned that’s why I am very good at finding connections between seemingly disparate phenomena — in order to spot connections, you need to hold many of the patterns in your head for processing. It also explains why I have a knack for learning new concepts and ideas — effective learning often requires robust processing power. (Use this test to determine your processing power — I scored 11)

However, what I have (higher than normal RAM) makes up for the fact that I lack a large hard drive. In fact, I believe my hard drive is much smaller than average because I am terrible at remembering facts and figures. How many dynasties are there in Chinese history? Don’t know! What started the Boston Tea Party? No clue! What is the 6th planet from the sun? Couldn’t tell you! It’s a miracle I passed my history, anatomy and all those memorization-intensive classes!!

Even though it has not been shown (or maybe it has — I just haven’t found it) by science that individual usually excels in one or the other but not both, I have met enough people who characteristically exhibit strength in one or the other (but rarely both) to convince myself that my hypothesis is probably true. How about you? Do you find yourself better at one capacity than the other? Do tell in the comments.

March 2008