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Working Memory Inhibitory Control Cognitive Flexibility

Working memory is one of the three core Executive Functions, a subset of cognitive skills that enable us to plan, make decisions, change our minds and much more.

Working Memory Definition: Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information consciously in the mind.

It may be helpful to think about working memory as a workspace or a worktable, a bit like how you would assemble the ingredients you need to make a recipe on a kitchen workspace.  Some things you maybe have just brought home from the store.  That’s like new information that has just come in through our senses.  Other ingredients you may pull out of the pantry or refrigerator – like retrieving information from long-term memory.  Working Memory is how our mind holds onto all the information (ingredients) for whatever learning or thinking we are doing.  Working Memory is our only conscious processing.

Working Memory has limited capacity.  The capacity of working memory for most adults is 7 items, plus or minus 2.  A typical five-year-old can hold two items in working memory.  The number of items we can hold in working memory increases by one every other year until we hit the adult capacity of about 7.

How can we remember a ten-digit phone number or other information that exceeds 7 items?  Then we need to “chunk” information, or group it.  A chunk is any coherent group of items of information that we can remember as if it were a single item.  For example, a word is a chunk of letters, remembered as easily as a single letter, but carrying much more information.

Holding information in working memory long enough to do something with it is one thing, but doing something with that information adds another level of complexity.  Below are some examples of how we use working memory for reading, math and in everyday life.

Examples of Working Memory

Working Memory in Reading

  • Decoding – when we are sounding out a word and figuring out what it is, that process happens in working memory.  If working memory capacity is taken up with decoding, there is often little room left for anything else.
  • Comprehension – as we read, we take in information, we compare it to what we know to create meaning, and we have to remember the beginning of the sentence until we get to the end of the sentence (or paragraph or page or chapter or book).  All of this happens in working memory.
    • While working memory limitations are considered more relevant for younger readers, these limitations can also be an issue for college students.

Working Memory in Math

  • Counting – when we are counting things, we have to keep track of what we’ve counted and what we haven’t. Think of a time when you have counted a set of things getting a different answer when you counted again.  The problem probably isn’t with your ability to count!
  • Mental math – doing mental math calculations happens in working memory.
  • Multi-step math problems – keeping track of where we are in a multi-step math problem requires working memory capacity.

Working Memory in Social/Emotional Situations

  • Listening – just as when we read, we take in information when someone is speaking to us and have to make meaning of it, as we formulate a response.  If the response is not connected to what the person told us, they will likely conclude we weren’t listening (or don’t care what they said).
  • Following a set of instructions – when a parent or teacher gives a set of two or three instructions, working memory is what allows us to keep track of those instructions as we complete them.

How Strong Is Your Working Memory?

There are many types of tests for working memory.  Here’s a short test that we created that challenges some different aspects of working memory.  The test will take about 8 minutes.  Print the Answer Sheet out before you start the video. You will need a pen or a pencil to write your answers as you go through the test.   After you go through the video, then you can download the Answer Key and check your answers.

Download Answer Sheet

Download Answer Key

Improving Working Memory

Like many other cognitive skills, working memory can be developed with the right kind of cognitive training.  There are working memory programs that focus exclusively on working memory.  In general, this type of program yields improvements in scores on working memory tests but does not lead to transfer of those skills to reading, math and other aspects of everyday life.

When cognitive skills are trained in a comprehensive and integrated way, as is the case with BrainWare SAFARI, growth in working memory capacity and transfer to other activities can be achieved.

In one study, students with weaker working memory used BrainWare SAFARI 3-5 times a week for 30-45 minutes for 12 weeks.  Following their cognitive training with BrainWare SAFARI, students had closed the gap on average for working memory and experienced significantly greater growth in reading and math performance.


Working Memory Growth

“Effect of Neuroscience-Based Cognitive Skill Training on Growth of Cognitive Deficits Associated with Learning Disabilities …” Sarah Abitbol Avtzon. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal. 2012


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