What is Working Memory (WM)?
Working memory is a key cognitive function, used in daily life that allows individuals to hold information - “online”- for brief periods of time, typically a few seconds, in order to complete a task. In other words, working memory is the ability to control attention in the face of distractions.
working memory can provide great hope to a range of people who suffer from working memory deficits, including children and adults with attention problems, people with learning disabilities, and victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury among others.
Working Memory Essentials
• WM is a key cognitive function used in daily life that helps you to hold information in mind - “online”- for brief periods of time (typically a few seconds).
• WM develops during childhood and adulthood; it reaches maximum capacity at around 30 years of age.
• WM gradually declines during aging.
• About 50% of the variance in general intelligence between individuals can be explained by differences in working memory capacity.
• Individuals with working memory difficulties may not “stick to” an activity and may fail to complete tasks
• WM is important because it provides a mental workspace in which we can hold information while mentally engaged in other relevant activities
• WM impairments are found in ADHD, learning disabilities, language processing disorders, stroke and traumatic brain injury victims, among others
Working Memory and ADHD
Cognitive problems are primary rather than secondary features of ADHD. Current theories propose that the behavioral symptoms of ADHD are not primary features of the disorder but are attributable to underlying deficits in cognitive control processes that guide both behavior and cognitive function (Barkley, 1998). Working memory is one type of cognitive control process implicated in ADHD. Recent research indicates that working memory plays a major role in helping the mind focus and screen out distractions. Scientists have shown that even well-functioning, healthy adults become highly distractible when they have to think hard and continually rehearse information, which puts a heavy load on working memory. In other words, "the ability to act upon relevant information and ignore irrelevant distracters depends upon the availability of working memory".
How do we use working memory?
As technology continues to place endless amounts of information at our fingertips, working memory has become even more essential to our ability to function successfully since it allows us to focus our attention and organize and prioritize the things we do every day.
• Socially, you use it in the moment you are meeting someone and hearing their name for the first time.
• Academically, it is used when you’re reading and find it hard to comprehend what you've just read and have to reread material.
• Professionally, working memory is what drives your ability to concentrate and not lose your train of thought.
Living with a poor working memory would be like running many software programs simultaneously on a computer with little random access memory (RAM) — it would be slow, frustrating and very inefficient. In short, it wouldn’t work the way it needed to.
Working Memory and Academics
• WM is one of our most crucial cognitive capabilities, essential for sustaining attention, following directions, carrying out multistep instructions, remembering information momentarily, complex reasoning or staying focused on a project
• WM helps us to control attention and resist distractions
• WM is crucial for math, reading comprehension, complex problem solving and test taking.
• WM skills at four years are excellent predictors of children's achievements several years later; the better child's working memory skills the better they will perform in school.
Why is working memory so crucial to learning?
• WM is crucial to many learning activities in the classroom, because children often have to hold information in mind while engaged in an effortful activity.
• For example, WM is required for such tasks as remembering the sentence you have to write while trying to spell the individual words, or the list of instructions given by the teacher while carrying out individual steps in the task.
• Children with small working memory capacities will struggle in these activities, simply because they are unable to hold in mind sufficient information to allow them to complete the task.
• Losing crucial information from working memory will cause them to forget many things: instructions they are attempting to follow, the details of what they are doing, where they are in a complicated task, etc.
• Because children with small working memory capacity fail in many different activities on many occasions due to these kinds of forgetting, they will struggle to achieve normal rates of learning and so typically will make poor general academic progress.
• For these reasons, working memory is a” bottleneck” for learning.
What is the typical profile of a child with working memory impairments?
Common characteristics of children with working memory impairments
• well adjusted socially;
• reserved in group activities in the classroom, rarely volunteering answers and sometimes not answering direct questions;
• behave as though they have not paid attention, for example forgetting part or all of instructions or messages;
• frequently lose their place in complicated tasks which they may eventually abandon;
• forget the content of messages and instructions;
• Poor academic progress in areas such as reading comprehension, math, listening
• Frequently failure to complete learning activities;
• Low ability to multi-task;
Can working memory capacity be measured?
• Several tests have been developed to measure both verbal and visual spatial working memory capacity.
Can working memory be strengthened through training?
Although working memory has been studied for decades in both animals and humans, only recently did Swedish neuroscientist Dr. Torkel Klingberg prove it to be a “plastic” function of the brain, able to be strengthened through rigorous training. Dispelling the long-held belief that working memory is a fixed property of the individual, Klingberg's breakthrough research, performed at Stanford University and at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has shed new light on the treatment of working memory and attention deficits. From his research a home-based software working memory training program – Cogmed Working memory Training - has been developed for children and adults. The training consists of a specific set of working memory tasks that are performed on a computer, five days a week over five weeks, the tasks continually adjusted to match the individual’s performance.. As a result, individuals are consistently challenged to perform at their highest possible level. Results from several research studies indicate that systematic training of working memory can improve cognitive performance - including improved attention, better complex reasoning skills, and better ability to organize and multi-task - in children and adults. For further information, see www.cogmed.com