Working Memory

Noura Al Bistami, Devin Kowalczyk
  • Author
    Noura Al Bistami

    Noura has completed her MSc in Neuroscience from King's College London after receiving her BA in Psychology from the American University of Beirut. She is currently pursuing her career in Neuroscience, and has taught subjects pertaining to psychology, english literature, history, neuroscience, and neurobiology.

  • Instructor
    Devin Kowalczyk

    Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

What is working memory? This lesson describes the mechanics of working memory and its limits. It also offers working memory examples and explains how working memory can be improved. Updated: 07/30/2021

Table of Contents


What Is Working Memory?

Working memory is a type of short-term memory that stores information temporarily during the completion of cognitive tasks, such as comprehension, problem solving, reasoning, and learning. This temporary storage does not cause any changes in the brain, since it is short-lived and momentary.

Short-term memory was first discovered through research experiments in the 1960s, and working memory was coined by Alan D. Baddeley. His experiments in the 1970s and 1980s concluded that there was indeed a distinct form of memory that was shorter than long-term memory, but it was also quite distinct from short-term memory, in that working memory typically lasted only fractions of a second.

Working memory is important in attention, learning, and memory. Working memory involves three important components, including:

  • Encoding: the process of learning knowledge and relating it to previous knowledge. An example of encoding is when you pay attention to to certain things and ignore others, such as looking at a traffic light and encoding whether it is a red or green light, instead of focusing on trees or plants surrounding the car. The key here is that the encoding component is selective. It is also important to know that encoding memories may not be accurate, since your brain encodes an incredible amount of information every second, and this may cause false associations.
  • Storing: the process of maintaining the memory over time. When we store memories, our brains actually change structurally at the molecular level, such that memories may leave memory traces.
  • Retrieving: the process of accessing the memory or information when needed. Hints and clues can definitely help someone trying to retrieve a specific memory, since most of our memories are deep in our memory storage systems. Sometimes, a certain song or smell may ignite a memory someone has completely forgotten about, and this is because that song or smell was greatly tied into that memory.

Working memory differs from other kinds of memory because of its ability to hold and work with specific information for a certain about of time, such as using mental math to calculate the price of something after tax. There are other kinds of memory, such as:

  • Episodic memory: memories pertaining to events in somone's personal life.
  • Semantic memory: memories pertaining to factual knowledge, such as definitions of words or facts about the Earth.

Working Memory Examples

In our daily lives, we regularly use working memory to complete tasks and go about our day. Below are some examples:

  • Keeping a person's address in mind while being given directions
  • Keeping elements or the sequence of a story in mind before the person completes telling it
  • Dialing a telephone number that you were just told
  • Calculating the total bill of your groceries as you are shopping (mental math)

What is Working Memory Capacity?

Working memory capacity is the ability to hold onto and use specific information for a certain amount of time. Working memory capacity has been shown to increase with age; however there are key differences across individuals. It's also important to understand that working memory capacity is quite low and limited when compared to other kinds of memory, since a certain amount of information can only be held for a certain amount of time.

Research has shown that the number of items we can hold at once in our working memory is seven, plus or minus two items. According to Miller, our ability to put new information into categories via the process of chunking increases the number of items we can retain at once. This involves grouping the information into meaningful pieces that can be remembered better. An example of this would be if you were given a list of unrelated words to retain, you would probably categorize them into respective chunks: for example, the words "bird," "mouse," and even "bug" could be classified into the 'animals' chunk, and "book," "pen," "house" into the ' inanimate items' chunk. Other theories, such as those of Cowan, claim that we can only retain three or four items at once.

Maintenance describes the ability to 'hold' information in the mind for a given amount of time. This is a very important feature about working memory to understand because, without it, we lose our ability to use and manipulate this kind of short-lived memory and information. Biologically, maintenance requires the activation of key brain regions associated with problem solving and memory, in addition to many other areas that may aid in our ability to use the information.

Rehearsal refers to the process of consistently repeating learned information in a meaningful way, such as going through a list of groceries not just seeing unrelated words, but trying to think of how they could contribute to future meals. Rehearsal could also be giving meaning to recently learned or encoded information, such as making mnemonics in order to remember a list of given words in order. For example, in order to remember the planets in our solar system in order, we can remember the mnemonic "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles", corresponding to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Maintenance and rehearsal are ways to increase the likelihood of remembering something. This is because memories that are not rehearsed or maintained degrade and become inaccurate over time.

However, memory capacity does decrease with age and disease.

Working Memory vs Long-Term Memory

The biggest differences between working memory and long-term memory are their duration and capacity. In working memory, the memory or information is held for a limited period of time. In long-term memory, such as those associated with episodic or semantic memory, that information is held for a very long time, and sometimes for an entire lifetime. Furthermore, working memory capacity is quite small and limited (between four to seven items at once), whereas long-term memory capacity is almost unlimited.

The reason for the major differences between the two kinds of memory has to do with neural and biological underpinnings. Working memory does not involve long-term changes in the way our brains are organized or how the cells work, but long-term memory does. As such, working memory involves the temporary activation of the brain, whereas long-term memory brings about physiological changes within the brain's active networks and connections.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the role of working memory?

The role of working memory is to temporarily store information that you can actively use at a given time, without having it be encoded in your long-term memory

What is an example of a working memory?

An example of working memory would be if you are being told a story and you need to remember the story elements and characters in order to understand the story in full.

How do we use working memory in everyday life?

We use working memory to complete various tasks in our everyday lives. (For example, remembering our grocery lists while doing our shopping or looking at traffic lights.) We do not necessarily retain the information for a long period of time--just when we need it!

What is a working memory in psychology?

In psychology, the term working memory refers to the memory we use in the active and temporary encoding of information.

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