Mathematics students demonstrate superior visuo-spatial working memory to humanities students under conditions of low central executive processing load

Previous research has demonstrated that working memory performance is linked to mathematics achievement. Most previous studies have involved children and arithmetic rather than more advanced forms of mathematics. This study compared the performance of groups of adult mathematics and humanities students. Experiment 1 employed verbal and visuo-spatial working memory span tasks using a novel face-matching processing element. Results showed that mathematics students had greater working memory capacity in the visuospatial domain only. Experiment 2 replicated this and demonstrated that neither visuo-spatial short-term memory nor endogenous spatial attention explained the visuo-spatial working memory differences. Experiment 3 used working memory span tasks with more traditional verbal or visuo-spatial processing elements to explore the effect of processing type. In this study mathematics students showed superior visuo-spatial working memory capacity only when the processing involved had a comparatively low level of central executive involvement. Both visuo-spatial working memory capacity and general visuo-spatial skills predicted mathematics achievement.