What is working memory?
Psychologists use the term working memory to describe the ability we have to hold information in our minds and mentally manipulate it over short periods of time. Working memory is often thought of as a mental workspace that we can use to store important information in the course of our mental activities.
A good example of an activity that uses working memory is mental arithmetic.
Imagine, for example, attempting to multiply 43 and 27 together, and given verbally to you by another person, without being able to use a pen, paper or a calculator.
First of all, you would need to hold the two numbers in working memory. The next step would be to use learned multiplication rules to calculate the products of successive pairs of numbers, adding to working memory the new products, as you proceed. Finally, you would need to add together the products held in there, resulting in the correct solution. Without working memory we would not be able to carry out this kind of complex mental activity in which we have to keep both in mind while processing other material.
We know that besides having a huge impact on attention and focus, working memory deficits also impact:
- Reading comprehension, because it’s too hard to remember the characters in the story, the sequence of the plot and the order of the syntax.
- Understanding spoken language, because the listener needs to track the meaning in the speaker’s words long enough so that there is meaning and not just a bunch of little phrases being processed.
- Writing, because a person needs to recall perhaps one or two thoughts or main ideas as he is putting them on paper. To write a paragraph or a story, a person needs to remember the overall story, the order in which he needs to tell it and the characters, events, the rules of writing, the grammar, etc. It’s too much to remember!
- Problem solving, because it requires that you cling to clues in your head while deducing or comprehending from a small amount of information at hand.
- Maths, because so much of arithmetic is a two or three step operation. Any part of a problem that should be rehearsed while doing the next step has a very good chance of being forgotten in a person with poor working memory skills. (Like in real life – if you have £35 and whilst you’re shopping, you’re keeping track mentally of what you have totalled so far – that’s working memory.)