Why is Working Memory Important?

byDaniel S. Dinsmoor, Ph. D.

Tracy Alloway, an authority on working memory from the UK, describes working memory as being a “post-it note”. As we learn, we make mental scribbles of bits of information that we are trying to remember. As we think about complex problems we also use working memory. It is similar to RAM (random access memory) in the computer. We bring information out of long-term mental storage into RAM where it’s immediately available to be manipulated. So working memory is important in terms of holding ideas in consciousness to be able to work with those ideas

Working memory is usually classified as having two forms. The first is verbal working memory and the second is visual-spatial working memory. Verbal working memory involves being able to remember things that are said to us and the manipulation of language based cognitive material. Visual-spatial working memory is used to remember anything that is seen. So this could include sequences of events, visual patterns and images. Visual-spatial working memory is often involved in mathematical skills. Children vary in terms of the size of their working memory capacity. Research into working memory gives us factual information about how this cognitive process develops. We know for example, that working memory gradually increases through childhood into early adulthood. Generally speaking, a child at five years of age can hold one item in mind, a seven years old child can hold two items in mind, a 10 -year-old can hold three items, and a 14 year old can hold four items in mind. A child who has a working memory capacity that’s much greater than other children in his class, may find class boring and unmotivating. A child whose working memory capacity is much smaller relative to other members in the class may experience the academic work as being such a struggle that they no longer can continue to be motivated to do it.

Contrary to what one might expect, how many years in preschool a child has does not affect working memory. That is, starting preschool at an early age does not increase working memory capacity. Similarly, parent’s social economic level or their number of years of education does not correlate well with the working memory capacity of their child.

Without intervention, difficulties with working memory do not improve over time (we will discuss interventions that help later in this article). So if a child in the third grade is seen to have a significant problem with working memory, that child will also have a significant problem with working memory in high school.

Recent research indicates that working memory is even more important than IQ in terms of determining educational outcome. It is possible to understand in this context why there are some very bright children who are not succeeding in the classroom. There is a correlation between working memory and Attention Deficit Disorder. The correlation is not perfect, but there is a fairly substantial overlap between those two types of problems. It is interesting to see that some researchers in the study of ADD, inattentive type suggest that working memory challenges are an essential element in the disorder.

There are several assessment tools that are helpful in the diagnosis of working memory problems. They can be generally classified as (1) behavior checklists and (2) performance measures. Behavior checklists help us identify problems in working memory in the natural environment, at school and at home. Performance measures help us quantify the severity of working memory problems. The combination of these tools serves as the basis for determining treatment planning and monitoring progress of the treatment plan.

So once we have identified a working memory problem, how do we provide treatment for this problem? Medication can be extremely helpful with attention, but research is equivocal about medications’ effectiveness in addressing working memory challenges. Working memory problems are also not helped by tutoring or other supportive services. There are four strategies that seem to be helpful with working memory. None of them completely resolves the problem, but each can contribute to part of the solution. The first is computerized working memory training. There are several programs that are available to help with working memory training on the computer. The best and most researched program is Cogmed. Cogmed (www.Cogmed.com) was developed at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. This is the program offered at our clinic. A second program is called “Jungle Memory” (www.Junglememory.com). This is a recently developed program from the UK. If you are interested in pursuing computerized working memory training, please consult us and we will discuss the various options that are available.

The second option for improving working memory is neurofeedback. Neurofeedback has been demonstrated in a number of clinical studies to be helpful with attention deficit disorder. Research has shown that following neurofeedback treatment children’s performance on tests that evaluate working memory improved. Neurofeedback is provided in our clinic and if you are interested in a consultation please contact us.

The third way of improving working memory is by helping the student with cognitive techniques that facilitate learning. Tracy Alloway recommends two techniques to facilitatedeeper processing of learned material. “Thinking aloud” facilitates deeper processing by requiring the student to determine the three main points of materials they have just read. “Talking aloud” facilitates deeper processing by students learning in pairs and discussing what they have just read.

The fourth mechanism for working with problematic working memory abilities is to place a student in educational environment where there is less of a demand for working memory. For example, some people with core working memory deficits can do very well in learning situations where information is in front of them and therefore they don’t need to utilize working memory as much. On the other hand, doing school projects place fewer demands on working memory and this helps children with working memory weaknesses do better.