Dr. Rosemary Tannock is a professor of psychiatry and special education at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children. A leading expert on working memory, she says that it is important for everyone. “We use working memory almost constantly in daily life,” she says. “It’s required for learning, problem solving, reading, listening and many other tasks of large and small importance.” A steady stream of recent research has affirmed the importance of working memory to a broad range of populations, including:
Students — Nowhere is working memory more crucial than in the classroom. Math, reading and the processes we use to internalize information are utterly dependent on a healthy working memory capacity. Without working memory, learning could not take place. In her book, Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers, Dr. Susan Gathercole a renowned expert from the University of York, calls working memory “the engine of learning” because it has shown to be the primary indicator of academic performance.
Test takers — High school, college and graduate students around the U.S. determine their future in large part by their performance on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT. Lasting several hours, these tests require students to focus at a very high level, meticulously manage their time and perform well under pressure. To do so effectively, students need strong working memory. Research from leading neuroscientists indicates that working memory is the most important indicator of academic success. In a testing environment, working memory is what allows the student to quickly recall information, make mathematical and logical computations and stay focused as a time limit approaches.
Athletes — Athletes thrive on their ability to make split-second decisions. Working memory, which is crucial for performing under stress, is a tremendous asset on the sports field. “Athletes have to take in and hold onto different sets of information on the
field or the court,” says Dr. Paul White, a clinical psychologist from Wichita, Kan. “Working memory impacts their ability to make decisions and be effective.”
Professionals — Professionals are challenged more than ever to stay on track, prioritize activities and overcome the persistent distractions that slow productivity. Working memory is crucial in this environment. Professionals with strong working memory capacity are efficient with their time and well equipped to multi-task. They perform well under pressure, remain organized and stay focused on the task at hand.
People with attention deficits — When working memory is impaired, the impact on daily life can be quite debilitating. Working memory problems are present in a range of medical conditions including many who have been diagnosed with ADHD, victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury and cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy. Understanding the way that working memory functions and how it is made stronger of weaker is crucial for effectively improving the daily functioning for these populations.
Aging adults — Working memory reaches its peak between 25 and 30 and then begins a gradual decline. Around the age of 55, impairments in working memory become noticeable in daily life. “It is natural for working memory to decline with age,” says Dr. Lee Hyer, a psychologist from Georgia who specializes in senior care. “As a result, it becomes more difficult to think, organize, plan and do several things at once. When you look at aging brains, there are the areas that are affected both by the normal aging process and other brain areas that, for many, represent a degenerative process, such as dementia. Working memory is almost always involved in all decline processes.”