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Working Memory

What is a Working Memory Deficit and Why Is It Important?

einstein did not have a working memory deficitEinstein developed his theory of relativity using so-called thought experiments, now known as working memory. His working memory capacity was the source of his genius.  Low working memory certainly limits your child’s potential because working memory influences IQ, attention stamina, reading and cognition, making it a major target of learning science.


Working memory enables us to keep several pieces of information active while we try to do something with them. It is not short-term memory with information you retrieve and use. It is active information that stays in mind, can be manipulated and used to think. A working memory deficit 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 temporarily resides. It activates information in the brain where it exists. Therefore, this is a different memory type to short and long-term memory, which is 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 difficulties caused by low working memory deficit 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
  • Writing
  • Following directions
  • Reasoning
  • Complex learning

Some describe working memory as a worktable.  It is 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

Low Working Memory Can Be Helped

Working memory is an always changing cognitive skill.  Therefore, it is subject to the principle of neuroplasticity, meaning low working memory can improve with exercise, in capacity and duration.

Dr. D’Esposito has shown the positive effect of goal-based self management training on working memory capacity. Other works, including various Fast ForWord program studies and work by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, have also demonstrated the potential to increase low working memory.