You are on page 1of 6


Working memory
Draw the letter J on your mental sketchpad. Now draw the letter D. Turn it
90 to the left and put it on top of the J. What does this shape resemble?
An umbrella, of course! Youve just used your working memory. Our working
memory is a crucial part of the memory system, not least because it helps us
to gure things out mentally.

Temporary workspace
Not only can we store information in our short-term
memory, but we can also manipulate it. This is why
short-term memory is sometimes also called the working
memory. Working memory is our temporary workspace.
We use it in everyday tasks ranging from driving (where
you need to keep in mind the location of the cars
around you as you navigate through trafc), to
preparing a budget (where you need to keep in mind
one spending category while working on another),
to writing a letter (where you need to keep in mind
all you want to say while developing each point
a sentence at a time).

Active thinking
Increasing or maintaining ones working memory
ability has enormous benets in life. It could be
compared to boosting the processing
capacity of a computer. Working
memory is where you do
your active thinking and
problem solving. So, a
well-functioning working
memory is key to
successfully completing
many complex activities
that require you to reason,
understand, and learn. Try
the exercises opposite to use
your mental workspace in
different situations.
Working memory 39

12: Mental rotation 13: Backward spelling

When trying to nd the right jigsaw puzzle piece, you You are compiling a school quiz and one of the questions
often mentally rotate the ones you see on the table to involves spelling several words backward. Before asking
see in your working mental space whether they the pupils to take part, you decide to try it yourself. Work
would t. Lets practice mental rotation here. In each on one word at a time. Read the word once, then cover
box below, study each part of the top gure for 5 it up and spell it backward.
seconds. Then cover it up and circle the gure in the
bottom part that matches it. You will have to mentally
rotate the gures to nd the answer.







Children at school need their working memory for
various things, such as when doing maths, analysing
information, or even when writing down homework
instructions. Research shows that working memory
scores at age 5, rather than IQ scores,
are a better indicator of
academic achievement
when older (at age 11).
This is good news, as
working memory can
be measured more
easily and can also
Solutions on p.180
be improved.

Be attentive to boost your
working memory
Imagine holding a set of directions in your memory while driving. If a billboard
advertisement catches your attention, it may invade your mental
workspace and cause you to forget these directions. The same
thing may happen if an unrelated thought
suddenly comes to mind. Information in
working memory fades away
unless it is refreshed.
Maintaining information in
your short-term memory
requires a lot of
attention. The more you
are able to focus on task-
relevant information and
ignore distractions, the better
your memory performance will
be. Irrelevant thoughts that enter
your mental workspace and divide your
focus may lead to information overload and
ultimately errors.

Does multitasking
really work? happens, for example, when you try to talk on the
Most of us lead busy lives these days, and one of phone while also youre calculating how much
the ways in which we try to get everything done youve spent on your last shopping spree: you
is through multitasking. Multitasking requires you have to be mindful of what your conversation is
to hold information relevant to two or more tasks about while entering numbers in your calculator.
simultaneously in your working memory. This First of all, attending to two actvities at the same
Super technique: be attentive to boost your working memory 41

time means that youre forced to divide your attention, which allocates
less attention power to each activity. Secondly, it is hard to store and
manipulate a lot of information in this limited mental workspace. This
is why multitasking often leads to errors, as opposed to greater
efciency. The basic principles relevant to boosting your
working memory are listed in the box below.

Key memory-boosting principles

Focus your attention on the task at hand.
Reduce external distractions as much as possible.
Avoid multitasking.
Practice using your working memoryas with
any brain function, working memory can become
more efcient with practice.


of children seem to be diagnosed with Attention Decit and
Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Although many parents seek medical
help for this, is medication the best solution? Maybe not. ADHD
usually goes hand in hand with working memory problems. Research
has shown that training working memory leads to increased ability to
focus attention and control impulses, and improved learning abilities.
You can train working memory by performing regular computerized
exercises that test powers of concentration.

Exercises to test your concentration

The more youre able to focus, the better you will be at holding and using
information in your working memory. Get used to close observation so that
you pick up the smallest detail. Try the following exercises.

14: Notice the odd one out

A: While on a skiing holiday, you come out of your ski because all the skis look similar. Your pair is not made
cabin and look for your pair of skis: its not easy up of matching skis: can you nd it?

B: Youve lost your car in the parking lot once again! come in matching pairs. Can you spot your car? This is a
For some inexplicable reason all the other parked cars lot harder than it might seem at rst.

Solutions on p.1801
Exercises to test your concentration 43

15: Spot the difference

Here is another way to test your attention to detail. the 5 differences between this picture and the one you
Study the picture on the left for 5 seconds. Cover it up are now holding in your mind? Draw a circle around the
and then look at the picture on the right. Can you spot differences as you spot them.

DID YOU KNOW: DISTRACTED BY NOISE Youve and channel it into your sense of vision alone to
been invited over for dinner in an unfamiliar part make sure you nd the right house by spotting
of town. As you get closer to your destination, the correct street, which is why you need to limit
you look closely at the street signs while you slow doing concurrent activities. The fact of the matter
down. You also stop talking to your friend in the is that if you try to do several things at once, youll
car and turn down the radio. What is going on? probably fail in all these tasks: you will not have
You are doing all this because your attention is a meaningful conversation with your friend, you
currently being pulled in three different directions. will not appreciate the music on the radio, and
You want to harness all that attentional power youll probably miss the street you are looking for.