What is working memory

Working memory definition and description.

 - Working memory is a critical cognitive skill.
 - How it impacts IQ, learning and attention.

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Working Memory

What is working memory and why is it so important?

Did you know that Einstein developed his theory of relativity using what he called thought experiments, now defined as working memory? His working memory capacity was the source of his genius.

Working memory is connected to IQ and to attention stamina, making it a major research focus of learning professionals and neuroscientists.

What is working memory

Working Memory Definition
Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for keeping information online, manipulating it, and using it in your thinking. It is the way that you juggle the things you encounter to the parts of your brain that can take action.

We use our working memory constantly in daily life helping us to perform efficiently and effectively in academic, professional, and social settings.

Definition of Declarative, Procedural and Working Memory

When most of us hear the word "memory," we probably think of whether we can remember what we did yesterday or facts we might have learned in school. That's one kind of long-term memory which neuroscientists now refer to as declarative memory. Declarative memory is being able to recall an event or a fact, something we could tell someone else.

The other kind of long-term memory is referred to as procedural memory. When we do something over and over again to the point where it becomes automatic, that is considered procedural memory. Procedural memory is what enables us to tie our shoes without focusing on the steps involved or to drive to work and then wonder how we got there.
Five types of memory difficulties

But there is another kind of memory process that is integral to everything we do, referred to as working memory. Dr. Mark D'Esposito, with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, recently discussed the latest findings on working memory, including some of his own research.
Symptoms of working memory problems

Better Working Memory, Better Learning
Improvements in working memory help all aspects of learning and reading -- language, comprehension and analytical thinking -- because it is so closely correlated to intelligence. Learn more about how Gemm Learning's cognitive programs improve working memory.


How Working Memory Functions

Dr. D'Esposito defines working memory this way: the temporary retention of information that was just experienced but no longer exists in the external environment, or was just retrieved from long-term memory. Working memory is what enables us to keep several pieces of information active while we try to do something with them. Working memory is quite purposeful -- we hold all these pieces of information together in order to solve a problem or carry out a task.

Definition of working memory

Working memory is limited, however, both in terms of capacity and duration. Most adults have a working memory capacity of about 7 items. Children typically have less. Individuals who appear to have a span greater than 7 usually have it in one domain (e.g., remembering strings of numbers) rather than a generalized greater capacity.

The limited duration of working memory means that the active representations are short-lived and last only about 18 seconds. However, they can be stored for longer periods of time through active maintenance mechanisms, like repeating the information over and over.

Sometimes working memory is described as a worktable -- a place where you gather and can see the information you need to work with. Some models of working memory have suggested that it was actually a separate place in the brain. But it turns out that working memory is not like a computer's RAM; there is no separate place where the information is temporarily stored. Instead, working memory seems to be simply the activation and focus on information already in functional areas of the brain. These areas of the brain are activated through the prefrontal cortex.


The Building Block To All Learning

Working memory meaning

According to Dr. D'Esposito, working memory is "the building block of all learning and cognition." Its importance in everyday life -- in the workplace or in school -- becomes clear as he explains that working memory capacity has been shown to be correlated with:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Learning to spell
  • Writing
  • Following directions
  • Vocabulary learning
  • Note-taking
  • Reasoning
  • Complex learning

Dr. D'Esposito focuses his neuroscience research on the enhancement of working memory function. He has shown the positive effect of goal-based self management training on working memory capacity. Other work, including LEC's research on the impact of BrainWare Safari on a range of cognitive skills, including working memory, various studies using Fast ForWord and studies by Torkel Klingberg at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, have also demonstrated the potential to increase working memory.