Working Memory: Our low-capacity memory system with high impact on our daily lives

What do changing bad habits, catching up with a friend, and considering your next move at game night have in common? They all rely on working memory.

This post is also available in Dutch.

What do changing bad habits, catching up with a friend, and considering your next move at game night have in common? They all rely on working memory.

What is working memory and why is it important?

Working memory is our ability to keep pieces of information in mind in the short-term, and to work with them. Unlike long-term memory, working memory keeps this information only temporarily, while we are using it. For example, when listening to a friend speaking, we need to hold the context of what she is saying in mind in order to understand the meaning of her words. If we think of something to reply, we need to hold that in mind too, while still listening as well as making any changes to our planned reply based on this new information. Likewise, when we’re deciding whether to make a big move in a board game, we must visualize how the board will look after we move, and consider alternative scenarios for how our fellow players might react.

Scientists measure working memory by having people remember items like numbers, words, or colours over a short period, sometimes while doing a separate task in between. These types of measurements might seem trivial; however, the real-world implications of our capacity for working memory are huge: Because we are able to keep things in mind that are not physically present, we can imagine, plan, and work towards alternative realities. To this end, in addition to holding things like sounds and objects, working memory can also hold abstract concepts, like goals, which can help us guide our behaviour. For example, when walking past your favourite fast food restaurant, you can keep your goal to cook at home more in your working memory, and avoid the tempting alternative, rather than automatically stepping inside. But of course, using our working memory in this way is not always so easy.

Working memory has limited capacity

There is a limit on the number of items we can keep in working memory, and most people can store only 3-5 items at a time.  We can get around this limit somewhat by chunking items together (e.g., grouping some numbers together to remember a long phone number), but even so, we are limited to remembering 3-5 chunks. This inherent limit on our working memory means that we can’t always keep everything in mind at the right time.

Capacity limits can partly explain why our working memory sometimes fails, but another important factor is our ability to control what gets into our working memory in the first place.

It can be challenging to keep distractions, which can occupy our limited number of spaces, out of working memory. In the example above, it would be more difficult to keep our cooking goal active in our working memory if it has to compete with lots of other thoughts, like a stressful situation at work or how hungry we are. (Stay tuned for a future blog that will explore this topic in more detail.)

Can you improve your working memory?

Working memory is often the target of brain training programs and experiments because it lays a foundation for so many mental abilities. In these experiments, people practice computerized working memory tasks consistently over several weeks, months, or years, and are then tested to see whether they’ve improved. Research on the effectiveness of these programs has not been particularly promising: Although people do get better at very specific working memory skills (i.e., remembering numbers), these improvements do not extend to other skills that require working memory. It remains to be seen whether other approaches to training can lead to improvements that do translate to other mental skills. 

Regardless of what the future holds for working memory training, studying how working memory works (and why it sometimes doesn’t) can provide us with powerful insights about our behaviour.

Author: Rebecca Calcott

Buddy: Julija Vaitonytė

Editor: Mónica Wagner

Translator: Floortje Bouwkamp

Translation Editor: Wessel Hieselaar

Image by JESHOOTS.COM via Unsplash.

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