08. Neuroscience

Working Memory: Why Is It So Important?

July 29, 2016

A student taking notes in class, a driver on a downtown road, a grandparent chatting with grandchildren, a basketball player making a pass, and a person making their way through a busy shopping mall. What do all these people and situations have in common? Well from the title above you’ve probably guessed working memory. We’ve all heard it’s important, but actually what it is and why it’s critical in human performance is not so well known.

Working memory has been studied in detail for decades and is now recognized to impact all areas of learning and thinking. As such it’s thought to be one of the most important mental faculties, critical for cognitive abilities such as planning, problem solving, reasoning and maintaining concentration. Much research in education has shown its key both in classroom performance and for acquiring knowledge over time – predicting educational outcomes independently of IQ. Studies have similarly shown that this applies to career training, affecting the speed with which a skill such as computer programming is acquired.

So what exactly is it? Well it’s much more than memory, the ‘working’ part is pivotal. Not only do we need to keep certain bits of information accessible in mind, we also need to perform cognitive operations on them, manipulating or transforming them. And surprisingly often. As in the opening examples, we need to do this for many separate things both simultaneously and quickly. It’s all about how many things you can hold in your mind at once while meaningfully processing them.

Working memory capacity varies greatly from one person to another, something akin to how many programs a computer can handle running at the same time without slowing down or crashing. For a person with weak working memory, almost any situation with complexity and pressure soon becomes overwhelming. There’s good news though on two fronts. Firstly as we’ve seen in NeuroTracker research from healthy aging to university students and kids with learning difficulties, it’s a trainable ability responsive to the effects of neuroplasticity.

Secondly, it’s highly flexible, so when it’s improved it allows you to manage more information from any type of situation. Even in the case of different types of working memory, such as visuo-spatial compared to verbal, the processes draw on shared central executive resources that manage how much of each type of information should be held or discarded, and accordingly allocated to specialized brain regions for efficient processing.

Imagine boosting your working memory capacities – complex situations will seem simpler, accurate decisions will come more rapidly, and you will feel more aware day to day – so time to get training! To find out more about NeuroTracker studies showing improved working memory, check out our research summaries.

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