What is working memory and why is it so important?
- Working memory is used to hold information, a question for instance, while you think about an answer.
- Working memory is connected to IQ and attention skills, including following instructions.
- Weak working memory can undermine reading, math and learning progress.
While working memory is not talked about that much, it can be a difference maker. Einstein developed his theory of relativity using what he called thought experiments, now known as working memory. His enlarged working memory capacity was the source of his genius.
Working Memory Definition
Working memory enables us to keep several pieces of information active while we try to do something with them. It is active information that can be manipulated and used to think. The two types of working memory are auditory and visual-spatial. Working memory impacts our performance in academic, professional, and social settings.
Working memory is not like computer’s RAM; there is no separate place where the information is temporarily stored. Working memory activates information in the brain where it exists. This is a different memory type to short and long-term memory which is located in the medial temporal lobe.
How Working Memory Functions
Dr. Mark D’Esposito, from UC Berkeley, describes working memory as being quite purposeful — we hold all these pieces of information together in order to solve a problem or carry out a task.
Working memory is a temporary storage and workspace in the brain, “the blackboard of the mind” (Just and Carpenter) that allows for processing of moment-to-moment information, archived information, and a link between them both before storing new knowledge in long-term-memory. It is linked to:
- Arithmetic skill (think “carrying” a number in complex addition)
- Reading ability (holding previous words in the sentence in memory while you sound out the next one)
- Verbal fluency (considering the impact of your word choice before or while you speak a sentence)
- Problem-solving and adapting (redirecting your workflow to pursue a different course if you are not succeeding, and speeding up or slowing down your work speed to finish on time)
- Possibly ADHD (ability to integrate some past instructions with current stimuli deemed important, while ignoring other stimuli and information deemed unimportant)
The importance of working memory in everyday life becomes clear when we see that, in addition to IQ and attention, working memory capacity has been correlated with:
- Reading comprehension
- Learning to spell
- Following directions
- Complex learning
Sometimes working memory is described as a worktable — a place where you gather and can see the information you need to work with. It is a cognitive skill that varies greatly between individuals.
Symptoms of working memory problems
Working Memory Can Be Improved
Working memory is not hard-wired. It is a cognitive skill, subject to the principle of neuroplasticity, meaning it can be improved with exercise, capacity and duration.
Dr. D’Esposito has shown the positive effect of goal-based self management training on working memory capacity. Other works, including LEC’s research on how BrainWare Safari builds working memory, various Fast ForWord program studies and work by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, have also demonstrated the potential to increase working memory.