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Mar 21

What is Working Memory


Author: Torkel Klingberg, MD, PhD, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute

Working memory is the ability to keep information online for a brief period of time, which is essential for many cognitive tasks such as control of attention and problem solving. In contrast to what was previously assumed, we have shown that systematic training can improve working memory capacity, in both children and adults. Brain imaging studies also show that working memory training leads to increased brain activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortex. Improving working memory capacity leads to better performance on several tasks that require working memory and control of attention and it translates to increased attentiveness in everyday life.

Working Memory is a key function necessary for critical cognitive tasks
Working memory is the ability to keep and manipulate information online for a brief period of time. This ability can be measured for example by testing how many digits a subject can repeat back after hearing them once (verbal working memory) or how many positions a subject can remember after seeing them once (visual working memory).

In daily life we use working memory to remember plans or instructions of what to do next. But keeping information online is a very basic function that has proved to be of central importance in a wide range of cognitive tasks. Verbal working memory is necessary for comprehending long sentences; and verbal working memory capacity predicts performance on reading comprehension in the scholastic aptitude test (SAT) (Daneman and Carpenter, 1980). Working memory is also important for control of attention, and to maintain task-relevant information during problem solving. More generally, working memory has been suggested to be the single most important factor in determining general intellectual ability (SüB et al., 2002). About 50% of differences between individuals in non-verbal IQ can be explained by differences in working memory capacity (Conway et al., 2003).

More recently, it has also become clear that there is a strong link between working memory capacity and the ability to resist distractions and irrelevant information. One study used the so called “cocktail party effect”, i.e. our ability to focus on one voice despite noisy surroundings, and showed that this ability is related to working memory capacity (Conway et al., 2001). Recent studies have also shown that low working memory is related to being “off-task” and daydreaming (Kane et al., 2007). These psychological studies are consistent with neuroimaging studies, which have shown that subjects with higher working memory capacity are less likely to store irrelevant information (Vogel et al., 2005). The prefrontal cortex is important in providing this “filtering” of irrelevant information, and subjects with higher working memory capacity have a higher prefrontal activity and are better at filtering out distractors (McNab and Klingberg, 2008).

When people have deficits in working memory, they are often experienced as “inattention problems”, e.g. to have problems focusing on reading a text; or “memory problems”, e.g. forgetting what to do in the few seconds of walking from one room to the another, or being easily distracted while trying to focus on a task. In children the problem is often remembering what to do next, which makes them unable to finish an activity according to plan.

In conclusion, working memory allows us to hold on to information in order to complete a task, and is especially important in any cognitively demanding environment with irrelevant distractions.

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