What is a “Working Memory” and How Can We Improve It?
The role of working memory has been the subject of decades of research and study. This is because working memory is used for nearly every single action you take. It is a short-term information storage “unit” in our brains that is responsible for managing incoming data. Unlike short-term memory, working memory is also capable of processing incoming information.1 Over time, the information in our short term memories “decays” or is replaced with new incoming information.2 This means that you are using it constantly during activities like sports, learning, and any kind of creative process. You may be wondering how to improve working memory, given all the uses it has, and this too has been the subject of an enormous amount of research over several decades.
“How to Improve Working Memory” – A History of Research
Because working memory is used in some way for nearly all cognition, neuroscientists have sought to understand the mechanisms of its function ever since its discovery. It’s proved a tricky process, however – for one thing, the effectiveness of working memory is hard to gauge, leading some scientists to question whether strategies to improve it are truly feasible.3 Similarly, because working memory is linked to focus of attention, it can be difficult to tell if a strategy is literally improving the working memory, or if it is making it easier for the person to focus. These are challenges for certain, but science works tirelessly to solve mysteries like this one, and there has been a lot of progress made.
When discussing how to improve working memory, a common metric for success is “working memory capacity.” In 1956, George Miller of Harvard University published one of the most well-known papers in the field of psychology, in which he proposed that the average number of “items” a person can store in their short-term memory is seven, give or take up to two items.4 Similarly, a person’s working memory can only manage so many chunks of information at a time. For some, especially those with ADHD and similar disorders, working memory capacity can be lower than Miller’s theory suggests.5 Because of this, strategies to improve working memory often focus on a person’s capacity; the more information the mind can process at once, the more effective it can be.
Strategies for Improving Working Memory
A number of studies have indicated that it is possible to improve working memory. In 2010, a team of researchers looked into the effectiveness of cognitive training exercises. In one example, participants were tested to see how many numbers they could remember in a sequence. Once in a while, they would be asked how many items back a certain number had appeared. Others were tasked with remembering certain items in a list while simultaneously making occasional judgments or performing small tasks. The study concluded that tasks involving “ repetition of demanding [working memory] tasks” represent “a favorable approach to achieve broad cognitive enhancement,” and can tentatively be considered a strategy for improving working memory.6 This implies that activities that improve a person’s general cognition may also improve their working memory.
Another key component to this kind of cognitive improvement is mindfulness. In 2013, a team of researchers from the University of California assigned students to a mindfulness class to determine whether those exercises might improve their working memory capacities. They concluded that the mindfulness training could elicit an increased working memory capacity, which translated into stronger SAT and GRE testing scores (“at least for people who struggle to maintain focus, our results suggest that the enhanced performance derived from mindfulness training results from a dampening of distracting thoughts”).7
Solutions and Tricks
What does this all mean for the individual? If you want to know how to improve working memory, the best things to look into are mindfulness training and memory exercises. Daily meditation was of particular use in the earlier mindfulness study. These papers also suggest that memory training exercises, such as those found in apps like Luminosity, can have a positive benefit for working memory.
- If you have trouble finding your focus, remember that working memory processes “chunks” of items. This is the reason we memorize phone numbers as three multi-digit numbers, rather than ten single-digit numbers.
- Consider breaking down tasks in the same way and focusing on one piece at a time to get the most “mileage” out of your working memory.
- Avoid multitasking if possible. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking will, for the majority of people, lessen their ability to complete tasks to the best of their ability.8 Focusing on one task at a time allows your working memory to bring its full potential to what you’re doing now. Prioritizing can help much more than multitasking!
Whether you’re struggling in school, on the athletic field, or in your studio, a little mindfulness can go a long way. Regular brain training and mindfulness exercises are a great place to start. Wearing your eSmartr Sleeve can make a big impact, especially while you meditate or practice – the easier it is to find your focus, the more efficiently your working memory can act. Although science hasn’t perfectly pinned down how to improve working memory, there’s no question that good brain health will make a big difference in all aspects of your life.
2. Jonides, John; Lewis, Richard L.; Nee, Derek Evan; Lustig, Cindy A.; Berman, Marc G.; Moore, Katherine Sledge (January 2008). "The Mind and Brain of Short-Term Memory". Annual Review of Psychology. 59 (1): 193–224. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093615. ISSN 0066-4308. PMC 3971378. PMID 17854286.
3. Shipstead, Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2012). Is working memory training effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 628–654. https://doi-org.library.sheridanc.on.ca/10.1037/a0027473
4. Miller GA (March 1956). "The magical number seven plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information". Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.308.8071. doi:10.1037/h0043158. PMID 13310704
6. Morrison, A. B., & Chein, J. M. (2011). Does working memory training work? the promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(1), 46-60. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.library.sheridanc.on.ca/docview/920259712?accountid=3455
7. Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5), 776–781. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612459659