Working Memory: The Key to Cognitive Performance
Working memory is a fundamental component of human cognition that plays a crucial role in various cognitive processes. It refers to the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information in mind for performing complex cognitive tasks. In simple terms, we can understand it as a cognitive workspace that allows us to store and process information simultaneously.
We have many cognitive limitations. We cannot pull every memories, acquired piece of knowledge, or preference into a specific cognitive process at the same time. Our cognitive space is limited. We refer to this as our working memory. However, the working memory is not a memory. It is more like a work station where we draw stored information to process present experience.
John Birtchnell, an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, wrote that working memory “allows several pieces of information to be held in mind at the same time, so that they can be compared, contrasted and otherwise interrelated” (Birtchnell, 2004). Basically, the content in this cognitive workspace is only the things we are currently paying attention to. Markedly, this cognitive space is limited, allowing for only a finite number of items available for comparing, contrasting, and interrelating.
Working memory is a cognitive desktop where we can contrast, compare, and attend to a limited number of items. Working memory allows for pulling information from the environment and comparing it with stored memories so we can make interpret new information.
Components of Working Memory
Working memory consists of several interrelated components that work together to facilitate optimal cognitive performance. The three primary components include:
- Central Executive: This component acts as the control center, directing attention, coordinating mental resources, and managing information flow in and out of working memory. We also refer to these as executive functions.
- Phonological Loop: Responsible for processing and manipulating auditory or verbal information. It is involved in tasks such as language comprehension, speech production, and mental rehearsal.
- Visuospatial Sketchpad: Deals with visual and spatial information, enabling us to mentally visualize objects, scenes, and spatial relationships.
Automation, Consciousness, and Cognitive Work Space
We operate smoothly in automatic mode. We perform and react without conscious involvement. Automation preserves precious cognitive resources. However, sometimes we automatically act in ways that impair growth and destroy futures. In these cases, a little mindful attention, bringing behaviors, circumstances, and beliefs back to the drawing board of working memory may be beneficial. We can rework automatic processes so that they better serve us.
Donald Merlin refers to working memory as a global workspace. He suggests only certain external events qualify for admittance to this workspace. Only events that have enough salience of importance, length, and internal coherence force their way into working memory. Most external data quickly passes by without conscious acknowledgement (Merlin, 2002).
Some information clashes with our primary world beliefs, and we quickly push the information from working memory to avoid the discomforting dissonance. If we refuse the protective defenses power, the clashes must be addresses. Merlin suggests such information triggers a startle affect. Our emotional reaction to the dissonance is a wake up call for the brain to update working memory records. Merlin explains that “to achieve this, even more conscious resources have to be called in. Thus the executive brain surveys and reclassifies the environment and then reorients itself, by recalling appropriate contextual knowledge from long term memory” (Merlin 2002).
Importance of Working Memory
Working memory capacity is strongly correlated with cognitive abilities and academic achievements. It plays a pivotal role in several cognitive processes, including:
- Learning: Working memory allows students to comprehend new information, store it, and connect it with existing knowledge. It aids in forming associations, recalling facts, and problem-solving.
- Attention: Working memory helps us stay focused on tasks, selectively attend to important information, and ignore distractions. It acts as a filter, allowing only relevant information into our consciousness.
- Decision Making: Important decision require evaluating many sources of information. Our cognitive workspace enables us to evaluate alternatives, weigh pros and cons, and make informed decisions. It empowers us to plan, prioritize, and consider multiple factors simultaneously.
- Problem Solving: Complicated cognitions, utilizing multiple sources of information is necessary for complex problem-solving. It helps analyze problems, break them down into manageable parts, and retrieve relevant information from long-term memory.
Emotions and Working Memory
Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explains that the “the amygdala can influence the information content of working memory.” He proposes, similar to Merlin’s startle affect that significant arousal in the amygdala punctures through to consciousness, igniting a deeper investigation of the cause. He wrote that “connections from the amygdala to the cortex allow the defense networks of the amygdala to influence attention, perception, and memory in situations where we are facing danger” (LeDoux, 2015).
LeDoux explains that when the threat continues these processes are essential for survival. He wrote, “the continued driving of the amygdala by the dangerous stimulus keeps the arousal systems active, which keeps the amygdala and cortical networks actively engaged in the situation as well.” He continues, “cognitive inference and decision making processes controlled by the working memory executive become actively focused on the emotional arousing situation, trying to figure out what is going on and what should be done about it. All other inputs that are vying for the attention of working memory are blocked out” (LeDoux. 2015, p. 291).
Basically, the arousal starts a string of events, including scanning the environment for cause, and pulling from long-term memory for interpretation. From the working memory desktop, we integrate the information and update long-term memory with any new or contradictory findings.
Updating Long-Term Memory
The integrating work done in working memory creates new input for long-term memory storage. Some of our memories our misguided or based on limited information. New experiences allow for updating. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, wrote, “when we consciously think of a problem or an event, working memory allows us to link together various representations and manipulate them in our minds. The product of such cognitive processing can then enter a more stable component, ‘long-term’ memory” (2020, Siegel, Kindle location: 1,553).
Improving Working Memory
Fortunately, the size of this work space is not fixed. Accordingly, we can enhance it through various strategies and exercises. Here are a few techniques that can help:
- Chunking: Breaking down information into smaller, meaningful chunks can enhance working memory capacity. For example, remembering a long string of numbers by grouping them into smaller sets.
- Repetition and Practice: Regularly engaging in activities that require working memory, such as puzzles, brainteasers, and memory games, can strengthen this cognitive function.
- Visualization: Visualizing information can boost memory performance. Create vivid mental images and associations to help solidify information in your mind.
- Exercising and Healthy Lifestyle: Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, improving cognitive functioning, including working memory. A balanced diet and proper sleep also play a vital role in maintaining optimal cognitive performance.
Working memory is a cornerstone of cognitive abilities and vital for everyday functioning. By understanding its importance and employing strategies to improve it, we can enhance our learning, attention, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. So, let’s keep our brains sharp and unlock our full cognitive potential.
Birtchnell, John (2004). The Two of Me: The Rational Outer Me and the Emotional Inner Me. Psychology Press; 1st edition.
Donald, Merlin (2002). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition.
LeDoux, Joseph (2015). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon & Schuster.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.