Working Memory Essentials

Key challenges: Working memory is an important part of the brain that is used for everything from recalling a person’s name to driving a car. Below are some of the key facts that we know about this essential cognitive ability:

Working memory is a key cognitive function that allows us to hold information in mind for short periods of time (typically a few seconds).

Working memory develops during childhood and adulthood; it reaches maximum capacity at around 30 years of age.

Working memory gradually declines during aging.

The capacity of working memory varies among individuals.

Kids with attention problems often have working memory deficits.

Working memory has been linked to academic success.

Stroke victims often suffer from impaired working memory.

Working memory is plastic. It can be improved by training.

The term “working memory” has existed for several decades. Early conceptions date back to the late 19th century when American psychologist William James proposed the distinction between a “primary” memory with a limited capacity and a long-term memory. Psychologist Dr. Alan Baddeley later defined working memory as a multifaceted function that captures visual and auditory information, directs attention, and coordinates processes. This model, still widely accepted, has been modified following exhaustive research demonstrating that working memory is definitively linked to attention control.

Deficits in working memory
Deficits in working memory can affect an individual’s ability to focus attention, control impulses, and solve problems. For example, someone with a working memory deficit may lose focus frequently when reading or forget why they move from one room to another. Impairments in working memory are found in a wide range of individuals who experience attention deficits, such as children and adults with ADD or ADHD, persons with learning disabilities, and victims of stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Working memory can be strengthened
Though working memory has been studied for decades in both animals and humans, only recently did Swedish Neuroscientist Dr. Torkel Klingberg prove it to be a plastic function of the brain, able to be strengthened through rigorous training. Dispelling the long held belief that working memory is a fixed property of the individual, Klingberg’s breakthrough research, performed at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has shed new light on the treatment of attention deficits.