Working Memory in Daily Life

Have you ever left a coffee cup on the roof of your car as you speed off down the road? Have you ever searched frantically for your sunglasses only to find them on your head – or forgotten where you parked your car?

These slip-ups are all lapses in your working memory, the function that allows us to keep information in mind for brief periods of time.

Working memory is crucial in the daily lives of people of all ages. Below are descriptions of working memory’s role in three essential areas: academics, professional life, and social life.

Working Memory & Professional Life

Working memory is especially important in the office. Essential for staying focused, remembering important information, and keeping appointments. It’s also what allows us to focus under pressure and function while distractions are present.

Imagine you are giving an important presentation in front of a room full of people. You have prepared extensively and it shows as you confidently walk through your key points. All eyes are trained on you and you begin to sense that they are getting it; the presentation will be a success. Suddenly, your mind goes blank. You fumble over words while desperately attempting to get back on track. You can feel your momentum escaping the room like air from a punctured tire. Your embarrassment makes it even more difficult to recover.

Many professionals know this scenario all too well. A limited working memory capacity can be the cause of such moments and can affect a person’s professional success by causing them to avoid pressure situations.

A strong working memory empowers a professional to perform well under pressure, remain organized and prioritize activities. Professionals with strong working memory capacities are efficient with their time and well equipped to multi-task.

Working Memory & Academics

Students use working memory all the time. It is especially crucial for math, reading comprehension, complex problem solving, and test taking. Imagine you are in a classroom full of students taking a simple multiple choice test. You carefully read each question and then view a handful of potential answers, selecting the one that best answers the question.

But what happens when your working memory fails and you forget the question by the time you read the answer choices?

For many students, this is a familiar scenario. Even students who are exceptionally intelligent may experience difficulties in school due to a limited working memory capacity.

At the same time, a strong working memory allows a student to focus intently during tests and recall essential information. Students with healthy working memory capacities are especially well equipped for important academic subjects such as math and reading comprehension because they can retain information and prioritize the steps to solving problems.

Working Memory & Social Life

We use working memory in social situations and in our relationships. Listening and being attentive to the needs and concerns of others requires the use of working memory. Imagine you’ve just met someone at a party. You chat pleasantly for several minutes finding you have much in common. As the conversation comes to a close, you both express the desire to meet again in the near future. Warmly shaking hands you say, “It was great meeting you—.” Your mind is blank as you try to recall your new friend’s name.

People with working memory problems often experience difficulty in their social interactions and relationships due to their inability to focus and remember important events and engagements. Sadly, these lapses can be misinterpreted as indifference or disinterest.

A healthy working memory enables a person to remember important facts, such as names and dates, to be an attentive listener, and to be aware of the emotional and physical needs of those around them.