An Introduction to Working Memory

Cogmed is a digital training program for improving working memory and attention But what, exactly, is working memory? This video provides a brief introduction to the subject, covering key aspects of working memory and the cognitive functions it supports:

This is the first video in a four part series. Find part 2 here.

Video transcript:

When you hear the word memory, what do you think about?

Perhaps you are taken back to a beautiful day at the beach a few years ago. Or reminiscing about the smell of freshly baked bread in your grandmother's kitchen. Or maybe you are reflecting on all the countries and capitals you had to memorize in geography class. 

And yes: these things are all definitely related to memory.

But, this is long term memory. This is the place in your brain where you keep information, so that you can use it in a week, or month or even a few years.

Now, we’re here to talk about working memory, not long term memory. 

Before we get into the details, let’s do a math calculation. Yes, really. Just go with it, it’ll make sense soon. 

Let’s calculate 13x6, mentally. No calculators, no writing anything down. Do it just in your brain. Go ahead, give it a try, no cheating. If you want to, you can pause the video here while you think. Press play again when you’re ready to move on. 

Ok. How did it go?

One commonly used approach for solving problems like this is starting with the tens, so taking 10 x 6, and then putting the result (60) to the side...

... then we calculate the ones:  3 × 6 , which is 18, and add the two together to find the answer: 78. 

If you also did something like this, then where exactly inside your mind did the “60” sit, while you were busy with the second calculation? What function in your brain keeps this kind of information available, so that you can process it?

Spot on, this is your working memory. Sorry for making you do math, but it made sense in the end, didn’t it?

Working memory is the short term retention of information for processing in order to perform a task. 

Compare it to your leg muscles, for example. In much the same way that they are fundamental to a range of physical tasks such as standing, jumping, running and keeping your balance, your working memory is fundamental to a range of cognitive tasks.

In addition to mental math calculations, four such tasks are: 

  1. Attention
  2. Thinking
  3. Learning
  4. AExecuting

When you focus your attention on something, block out distractions, inhibit impulses, and stay on task, your working memory is hard at work. Increasing your working memory capacity easily translates to a better ability to focus in most situations.

Thinking, consciously processing information, requires access to the information that you are thinking about, i.e. short term retention in your working memory. This includes activities such as manipulating, sorting, analyzing, comparing, calculating, and drawing conclusions.

To learn, you must first focus and think about what it is you are trying to learn. Learning is an active task – the more you rehash, rephrase, analyze, and process information, the faster (and longer!) it sticks to your long term memory. When you read a long text, for example, it must be available in your mind (short term retention) so that you can process it, understand it, and eventually commit your understanding to storage

Perhaps the most overlooked process where your mind makes use of your working memory is when you keep track of tasks, decide what to do, focus on the task at hand, block out distractions, inhibit impulses – when you get things done. Having a good capacity for
executing  is important for simple things like following the steps of a recipe, and for bigger things like taking on responsibility, making plans and sticking to them, and many more similar capacities you need to succeed in school or at work.

These four-attention, thinking, learning and executing-are all incredibly useful skills, and having a good working memory capacity is fundamental to accomplishing them.

Cogmed Team

Assembling neurons since 2002

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