Working memory is an important brain system that we use every day without even thinking about it. It allows us to temporarily store and manage information for everything from remembering a phone number to doing maths problems or making a grocery list. In this article, we’ll break down the psychological concept of working memory in simple terms and understand the important role it plays in our everyday functioning.
What Is Working Memory?
Working memory is the short-term memory your brain uses to hold bits of information for a short while as you work with them. It’s vital for things like:
- Mental maths
- Making decisions
- Learning new skills
- Reading comprehension
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You can think of it like your brain’s scratch pad or sticky notes. It lets you keep useful information “in mind” and readily available to think about or manipulate. For example, it can help you in:
- Follow the thread of a conversation
- Resume a task after being briefly interrupted
- Remember a phone number long enough to dial it
- Do a maths problem with multiple steps like long division
They act as a place to assemble the raw materials you need to complete cognitive tasks. It stores bits of facts, verbal information, visual data, and attention controls for the precise moment you need them so they are available to actively think about. Unlike longer-lasting memories, it is very transient and temporary. Any information it holds onto decays and fades in a matter of seconds if you are not actively focusing on it.
However, it plays a vital behind-the-scenes role in acquiring knowledge, reasoning through problems, understanding instructions, and controlling attention during learning. It provides readily accessible storage bins to grapple with information coming in via sounds, images, and language before either discarding this data or transferring it to more permanent memory files. Understanding how humans temporarily cache recent bits of info sheds light on challenges from forgetfulness to critical thinking fluency.
How Is Information Stored?
Most experts break down the working memory system into three main parts that let you temporarily store different types of data:
1. Phonological Loop
The phonological loop stores auditory and verbal information. It handles speech-based sounds or words and language you hear or say internally when thinking. For example, this lets you repeat a phone number silently to yourself without losing track of it before dialling. It can hold memory traces for acoustic info for 1-2 seconds but decays quickly without rehearsing. It also converts visual info like written numbers into a phonological code.
This is why subvocal rehearsal (saying it in your head) helps remember stuff you read. Many believe the evolution of language depended heavily on developing an efficient phonological store component. It allows for acquiring vocabulary by matching widely dispersed speech sounds with referent meanings.
2. Visuospatial Sketchpad
As the name suggests, this component handles temporarily retaining visual images, spatial relationships, navigation maps, object characteristics like shapes and textures, movements and distances, and other visuospatial representations. So if someone describes directions to you, this sketchpad models the mental map and scenery. It also constructs and manipulates mental images during geometric problem-solving or creative visualisation.
Research confirms closing your eyes often helps summon and focus on stored visual memories. Interestingly, visual and verbal thought are distinct processes supported by different brain structures. People with strong visual-spatial but weaker phonological capabilities sometimes think predominantly in mental pictures.
3. Central Executive
This module controls your attention and oversees working memory as a whole by coordinating the distribution of processing and storage. It focuses mental energy based on current goals, inhibits distracting stimuli, shifts between storage areas flexibly, and manipulates the contents actively. You can visualise the central executive like a muscle; it fatigues with overuse. People differ in executive control capabilities based on genetics and lifestyle factors like stress. It relates strongly to general intelligence and cognitive growth during childhood as an important building block.
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4. Episodic Buffer
A newer model of working memory adds a 4th component called the episodic buffer. This integrates representations and info from the phonological loop, sketchpad, long-term memory, and sensory perception into one coherent “episode” or chunk that the central executive can access and manipulate. So the episodic buffer is hypothesised to bind together the what, when, and where of experienced events, almost like mental time travel. It may assemble conceptual models, spatial imagery, and language details into a heightened state of conscious awareness some call “reality orientation” to drive decision-making.
Short-Term Storage That Fades Quickly
A key fact about it is that it’s very temporary storage. Bits of information “decay” and disappear from working memory within seconds if they aren’t actively rehearsed. Think of how quickly you forget the middle of a long number if you get distracted while dialling and lose your place. Or how you can momentarily forget what you were about to do if the phone rings while cooking, despite having just had the steps clearly in mind seconds before. This shows the fleeting nature of working memory. Paying sustained attention and mentally “refreshing” the information is required to keep things present. This explains why capacity and attention spans differ widely between people and situations.
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Working Memory Has Limits
Most adults can actively hold about 3-4 “chunks” of information in working memory at once. Trying to juggle and manipulate more pieces than your maximum overloads the system and causes errors. That’s why we chunk larger bits of information together into meaningful units – like grouping the 10 digits of a phone number into three digestible chunks separated by dashes. Vast amounts of information get dumped out of it all day long before they get stored permanently in longer-term memory. So we have to strategically offload or transfer important stuff beyond this short-term holding area through repetition and organization techniques.
Working Memory Capacity
In 1956, cognitive psychologist George Miller published an influential paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” that explored the limits of short-term memory capacity. This became a seminal insight into working memory. Miller’s research found that the average adult can hold 7 +/- 2 “chunks” or pieces of information in their active working memory at one time. So most people can comfortably remember five to nine distinct chunks of letters, digits, words, or other units before performance deteriorates. This means if you try to recall a phone number like 8,952,107,536 midway through it overloads working memory’s transient capacity, causing errors. But grouped into three sets as 895, 210, and 7536 is manageable for the short-term store.
Chunking info into organised units and meaningful groups centred around main concepts helps overcome bottlenecks from Miller’s famous 7+/- 2 restriction. By binding related details together, each consolidated chunk takes up just a single working memory slot. Word length also matters. We more easily retain shorter words. This concept underlies mnemonic strategies like acronyms that condense information into concise phonetic labels acting as retrieval cues. Memory athletes leverage this by meticulously crafting vivid images, scenes and narratives connecting data chunks.
Miller equated each chunk as a “bit” of information in the brain’s quick-access workspace, similar to computer bytes. Just a few bits can combine to convey expansive ideas through elegant compression. Carefully formatting and optimizing bite-sized blocks boosts working memory efficiency. But like computers, biological storage still faces hard limits before overloading. In summary, George Miller’s quantification of short-term capacity constraints revealed signature properties of human working memory. His insights continue influencing psychology’s understanding of temporary memory systems and practical methods to enhance performance like information organisational skills.
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Why does working memory matter?
While often operating completely unconsciously, having at least a basic working memory capacity is critical for real-world functioning. Kids use it from an early age as building blocks for gradually more advanced cognition.
1. Poor working memory correlates strongly with challenges like:
- Chronic disorganisation
- Social and communications issues
- Learning or intellectual disabilities
- Problems with reading, maths, paying attention
2. Enhancing work memory brings benefits like improved:
- Reasoning speed
- Overall intelligence
- Emotional regulation
- Reading comprehension
- Concentration and reducing mind-wandering
Tips To Strengthen Working Memory
No magic pill currently exists to expand working memory. But using certain learning strategies and lifestyle habits can help maximise and leverage its power:
- Rehearse and repeat: Actively refresh material instead of passively absorbing it
- Exercise and sleep: Physical activity and rest strengthen memory consolidation overall
- Chunk information: Break content into bite-sized clusters of data to ease processing demands
- Reduce interference: Minimise external distractions and mind wandering to keep attention focused
- Apply mnemonics: Rhymes, acronyms, and visualisations act like mental hooks making facts stickier
Some also believe “brain training” games and apps may boost working memory, though more research is still needed.
It lets you briefly store and manipulate information like an online notepad. But its limited capacity and quickness to fade mean we must utilise this short-term buffer strategically. Mastering tricks to reduce cognitive load, improve attention, organize knowledge, and transfer data to long-term storage goes a long way to boosting productivity and skill building.
While often operating completely outside conscious awareness, continually upgrading our working memory systems brings immense benefits from youth through adulthood. Understanding how this online “scratchpad” works provides insights into improving focus, better learning, quicker thinking, and stronger memory retention overall.
Read More Articles from Psychologs
- Cowan, N. (2014). Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 197-223.
- Racsmány, M., Lukács, Á., Németh, D., & Pléh, C. (2005). A verbális munkamemória magyar nyelvű vizsgálóeljárásai. Magyar Pszichológiai Szemle, 60(4), 479-506.
- Gropper, R. J., & Tannock, R. (2009). A pilot study of working memory and academic achievement in college students with ADHD. Journal of attention disorders, 12(6), 574-581.
- Jeneson, A., & Squire, L. R. (2012). Working memory, long-term memory, and medial temporal lobe function. Learning & Memory, 19(1), 15-25.
- Logie, R. H. (2011). The functional organisation and capacity limits of working memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 240-245.
- Peng, P., Namkung, J., Barnes, M., & Sun, C. (2016). A meta-analysis of mathematics and working memory: Moderating effects of working memory domain, type of mathematics skill, and sample characteristics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(4), 455.
- Redick, T. S., Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T. L., Hicks, K. L., Fried, D. E., Hambrick, D. Z., … & Engle, R. W. (2013). No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: A randomised, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(2), 359.