Working memory refers to the parts of human memory dedicated to processing and utilizing temporary (or ‘short-term’) information. Working memory has very limited capacity and information is only held temporarily.
The term “working memory” was first presented by Miller et al. (1960).
In the past, many researchers used the term “short-term store” or “short-term memory.” However, today researchers prefer the term “working memory” to highlight its function of processing and manipulating information, as opposed to simply storing it:
“The general consensus regarding working memory supports the idea that working memory is extensively involved in goal-directed behaviors in which information must be retained and manipulated to ensure successful task execution” (Chai et al., 2003, p. 1).
Working Memory Definition
Scholarly definitions of working memory include:
- “The processes that we use to make sense of, modify, interpret, and store information in short term memory are known as working memory.” (University of Minnesota, 2010, p. 318)
- “The ability to maintain information over a short period of time, such as 30 seconds or less.” (Kearns & Lee, 2015, p. 457)
- “Working memory holds about seven bits of information before it is forgotten or stored, as well as information that has been retrieved and is being use.” (Spielman, 2017, p. 280)
Working Memory Examples
- When meeting someone for the first time, we may repeat their name silently in the hopes of being able to remember it later.
- A graphic designer trying to visualize a possible logo design in their mind’s eye.
- A beginning reader trying to recall the pronunciation of specific blends when encountering an unfamiliar word.
- The concentration needed while driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood looking for a specific street.
- When a chess player is thinking about the next sequence of 20 moves.
- Focusing one’s sight on the strings of a guitar as you attempt to move your fingers to the correct spots.
- Trying to correctly pronounce the name of a particular fruit in a second language.
- When a quarterback scans the defense to determine what formation they are in.
- Listening intently to someone you are attracted to as you attempt to come-up with something humorous to say.
- Listening to yourself as you give a speech to monitor your tone and pace.
Working Memory vs Short-Term Memory
Working memory and short-term memory are similar terms that are not completely different. In fact, the term “working memory” has more or less replaced short-term memory to describe the same phenomenon as our understanding of it has evolved.
Both working and short-term memory refer to the temporary storage of information in the brain. However, “working memory” acknowledges that this temporary storage of information is a process rather than something static:
- Short-term memory was used to refer to the ability to hold a small amount of information (such as a phone number or a list of items) in your mind for a brief period of time (usually less than 30 seconds). The common metaphor is the “mental notepad” in the mind.
- Working memory expands on short-term memory because it refers to the ability to not only hold information in the mind but also manipulate it. You don’t just hold the information in your mind; rather, you also manipulate it, such as sorting it, using it to compare concepts, and use it to make logical decisions.
So, working memory is the newer term used to describe how our temporary memory can be actively and dynamically utilized in our cognitive processes.
Case Studies of Working Memory
Daydreaming is defined as thinking about pleasant activities that you would like to do. Instead of thinking about what you are doing in that particular moment, which involves working memory, the mind wanders seamlessly about other things.
Daydreaming also occurs in working memory and is the result of working memory not being utilized to full capacity.
As explained by Dr. Jonathan Smallwood from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, “…when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing.”
The relationship between daydreaming and working memory was investigated in a study by Levinson et al. (2013).
Research participants engaged in a mundane task that would not require a lot of working memory. Occasionally they would be interrupted and asked if they were on-task or daydreaming.
Afterwards, participants engaged in another task that measured working memory. The results indicated that participants whose mind wandered the most performed better on the working memory task.
So, it seems that either daydreaming improves your working memory, or those who daydream a lot have larger working memory capacity.
2. Working Memory, Chunking, and Chess
Chess is a complex game of strategy that utilizes both long-term and working memory. Chess masters are well-known for being able to recall the entire sequence of moves in games that took place years ago. As chess requires a great deal of concentration, there are several neurological benefits for the brain.
Researchers that study chess have discovered that expert chess players rely on chunking to enhance their play strategy.
One of the early scientific studies (de Groot, 1965; 1966) found that master-level players were able to memorize the placement of pieces on the board much better than players at lower levels.
However, when the pieces were arranged randomly, masters performed no better than lower-level players. How could this be?
As Chase and Simon (1973) explain:
“…their superior performance with “meaningful’ positions must lie in their ability to perceive structure in such positions and encode them in chunks. Specifically, if a chess master can remember the location of 20 or more pieces on the board, but has space for only about five chunks in working memory, then each chunk must be composed of four or five pieces, organized in a single relational structure” (p. 56).
See Also: Neuroeducation Theory
3. The Multicomponent Working Memory Model
The more researchers delve into a subject, the more complex it becomes. This truism is illustrated in how our definition of “working memory” has evolved over the last 60+ years.
Early on, working memory was termed “short-term memory store,” which implied that information was placed in a stagnant state temporarily.
However, as Chai et al. (2018) elaborate, newer conceptions of working memory have:
“…posited that as opposed to the simplistic functions of short-term memory in providing short-term storage of information, working memory is a multi-component system that manipulates information storage for greater and more complex cognitive utility” (p. 2).
The multicomponent model of working memory postulates no less than four components:
- controls and directs attentional focus .
- processes visual images such as the route to a location or pieces on a chess board
- handles auditory verbal information; for example, involved in listening to yourself speak during a business presentation
- integrates information from the other subcomponents to produce a coherent unitary experience
4. Reading without Processing
How many times have you started reading a textbook or research article and then realized on the next page that you have no idea what you just read? You can’t remember any of it.
Although you were processing the words, somehow, someway, that processing was so shallow that absolutely none of it was transferred to long-term storage.
This is a very common experience, sometimes referred to as mind wandering.
If reading a science-based article, then understanding the content will necessitate accessing long-term memory. The meaning of the jargon will need to be accessed and retrieved from long-term storage so that the text can be fully understood.
This illustrates a unique feature of working memory. Although it has limited capacity, an individual can engage in many tasks: reading and retrieval simultaneously.
Although in some instances, as in this example, there is so much capacity unused that it is possible to ponder ideas completely unrelated to the task at hand; such as reading without processing.
5. Working Memory and Creativity
Psychological research on creativity and working memory often focuses on the role of higher-order cognitive functions (see Lee & Therriault, 2013). However, sometimes those studies seem a bit artificial. Is it really possible to assess creativity through a paper and pencil test?
Fortunately, some studies have taken a more direct approach to studying creativity. For instance, De Dreu et al. (2013) measured the working memory capacity of skilled musicians.
Each musician was asked to play three, 3-minute improvisational pieces based on a specific theme. The theme changed each time.
Those sessions took place in a professional studio, recorded, and then given to highly-trained professional musicians to rate in terms of creativity.
The results found that those with high working memory capacity performed more creatively from the 1st to 3rd improvisations. Those with lower working memory capacity played progressively worse.
Higher working memory capacity allows for greater instantaneous processing and flexibility in the moment. This allows for greater expressivity that is coherent and organized in a meaningful way.
Working memory refers to the processing of information in conscious awareness to perform executive functions.
Although working memory has very limited capacity, it is quite powerful nonetheless. It is involved in nearly everything we do during our waking lives; when driving, reading, or engaged in conversation.
More interesting is what happens when working memory is involved in multitasking. An individual can perform several actions simultaneously.
However, because some of those tasks are simple or well-practiced, the left-over capacity allows us to daydream, express ourselves musically, or even read several paragraphs in a textbook without remembering a single word.
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