Working memory is the ability for you to hold information in your mind while you are using it. This information is often not readily available while you are working with it.
For example, when you look at a phone number before dialing it, your working memory stores the phone number so you don’t have to keep looking back at it while you dial every digit.
When discussing working memory, it is important not to get confused with the related terms: short term memory and long term memory. While all three memory types are important for everyday life, they each have different purposes.
There are three main categories of memories that the human brain is capable of, short term memory, working memory and long term memory. The main differences between these three categories of memory have to do with how long the information is stored and what is going to be done with it while it is being stored.
Short term memory is retained or held in your mind for only a brief period of time, around 15 – 20 seconds. While information is in your short term memory, you are not actively making use of this information. This is needed for daily tasks, but everything held in short term memory does not transition into long term memory.
Working memory is serves as a temporary storage for information you need to use in some way. It is needed so you can complete tasks.
Long term memory is information that is stored for an indefinite amount of time. Long term memory is constantly used, as you use your knowledge and past experiences to inform your daily living.
Working memory is crucial for reasoning and making sense of information because it allows the individual to relate different pieces of information together.
For example, working memory allows you to hold information during a conversation in your mind, allowing you to remember what has been said, connecting the pieces of the conversation together and decide what to say next.
You use working memory when doing the following:
- In math whether you are performing simple calculations or more complex operations
- In comprehending what you have heard or read
- When you modify your plans or thinking based on new information
- Following a set of instructions
- Organizing and reordering information
- Thinking logically through an argument
Many professionals consider working memory to be one of the three core executive functions. These are the skills that humans have an innate potential to develop from birth, when given the proper support during development.
Executive functions help you complete daily activities by acting like the CEO in your brain.
Working memory can be subdivided into two different types, verbal working memory and visual-spatial (nonverbal) working memory.
Verbal working memory taps into the auditory system and holds speech-based information. Reciting this information can help keep it in the working memory.
Visual-spatial working memory is responsible for holding information that can be held as a visual image.
As with other executive functioning skills, working memory does increase as you mature from childhood to adulthood.
However, working memory is a skill that cannot be taught. It is something that can be worked on but there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving working memory and be cautious of any program that says it can.
That being said they are certain strategies that can be used to help with working memory. It is important to take the time to experiment with different strategies and become familiar with which strategy works best for you.
- Chunking information into smaller pieces.
For example, if asking someone to write something down, provide them with only a few words at a time instead of several words at once.
- Use lists or graphic organizers to help with tasks that have some sort of routine to them.
For example, if you are having a hard time making sure you have everything you need in the morning when you leave your house. Keep a small check list to review before you go out the door.
- Recite information you are trying to remember.
For example, if have to look at the ingredients you need when following a recipe, repeat them in your head while you are measuring them out after having read them.
Individuals with one or more exceptionality, such as Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Down Syndrome and Autism, often have problems with working memory. Having a working memory deficit does not mean that they cannot learn, it just means that their learning needs to be approached differently so that their difficulty with working memory is factored into the instructional method.
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2018). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention. (3rd Ed.) New York, New York: Guilford Press.
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
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