Working memory, a form of short-term memory, is defined as your capacity to hold information in your mind, think about it, and then use it to complete a task. Now a new study has found that parents' education is related to a child’s performance on working memory tasks, while neighborhood characteristics are not. Additionally, the researchers discovered that any differences in working memory that exist at age 10 will persist through the end of adolescence, when that mental capacity more or less hardens into place.

"The fact that parents' education predicts working memory suggests that parenting practices and home environments may be important for this aspect of cognitive development and as a fruitful area for intervention and prevention," said Dr. Daniel A. Hackman, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, who led the study.

Some people use the terms working memory and short-term memory interchangeably, but working memory is more about how the brain is capable of manipulating the information it receives. Psychologists often use the idea of a scratch pad to describe working memory because it keeps information — a name or number or fact — on hand just long enough for your mind to use it. Prior research has shown how working memory develops through childhood and adolescence, and is key to performance at school and work. Yet studies have also shown that socioeconomic disparities underscore differences in performance on tasks of working memory. For the current study, then, a team of researchers led by Hackman decided to examine more closely the development of working memory.

To take a comprehensive snapshot of working memory in relation to different measures of socioeconomic status, the team enrolled 316 children between the ages of 10 and 13 from urban public and parochial schools over a four-year period. The children came from racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. The researchers gathered information on how many years of education the parents of each child had completed, as well as on neighborhood characteristics — for example, how many people lived below poverty level, were unemployed, or received public assistance. Meanwhile, throughout the four years, each child repeatedly completed a number of working memory tasks.

What did the team discover about working memory? Parental education was found to be tied to performance on working memory tasks, while neighborhood characteristics were not. In fact, the results of the study suggested that disparities seen in adolescence and adulthood emerged by age 10 and continued through adolescence. Unfortunately, the researchers also discovered that school did not generally close the gap in working memory performance among children age 10 and older. In fact, kids whose parents had fewer years of education didn’t catch up or fell even further behind by the end of adolescence — the time when working memory performance reaches maturity levels.

One hopeful note: the findings of this study do not suggest that working memory is not malleable. "Persistent disparities are a potential source of differences in academic achievement as students age and as the demands of both school work and the social environment increase,” Hackman stated in a press release. "Our findings highlight the potential value of programs that promote developing working memory early as a way to prevent disparities in achievement."

Source: Hackman DA, Betancourt LM, Gallop R, Romer D, Brodsky NL, Hurt H, Farah MJ. Mapping the Trajectory of Socioeconomic Disparity in Working Memory: Parental and Neighborhood Factors. Child Development. 2014.