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How to Improve Working Memory

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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How to Improve Working Memory

How often have you tried to put all your focus into the one crucial task that means the world to you, only to have your brain convert into a pinball machine? No matter how hard you attempt to keep your thoughts in order, wild ideas sometimes keep flowing in from all directions, beating at your limited attention span.

You might be working on the most important project of your life, only to find yourself thinking about a cute dress you saw yesterday or what you’ll be having for dinner later. The human mind can sometimes be a fickle muscle that’s hard to keep in control.

Fortunately, it is possible to control your precious thoughts from external influence by simply boosting one cognitive function: your working memory. Working memory refers to the capacity of our brain to store and remember information easily and quickly; there is a possibility to improve it without spending long hours at the kitchen table or attending a never-ending, complicated workshop.

Unfolding the Meaning of Working Memory

You might be familiar with “short-term memory,” a term commonly used interchangeably with “long-term memory.” Both refer to information or thoughts you hold in your mind temporarily, and this temporary hold allows you to access them whenever you need to finish a task easily.

Consider working memory as a shelf in your brain where you stack up different memories on top of each other.[1] For example, imagine going to a supermarket to purchase milk, bread, and eggs. As you enter the store, you suddenly remember that you also need to purchase cereal. As you head to the cereal aisle and scan through to find your favorite one, the bread falls off your mental shelf. As a result, you come back home with milk, eggs, and cereal but forget the eggs.

The number of items you get to store in your working memory shelf might be different from the number your best friend can accommodate on their mental shelf. Evidence suggests that younger children tend to have limited working memory space as they can only hold on to one or two items in memory. The working memory continues to develop as a person ages, but not everyone develops it at the same pace. Even as adults, some people can store a lot more information than others.

So far, researchers have failed to agree on the number of information “bytes” the human brain can store. Some say it’s around four items, while others claim it to be seven. Whatever’s true for your case; there is a possibility to increase your working memory and capacity through a series of simple activities.

The Importance of Working Memory in Everyday Life

An average individual uses their working memory multiple times a day in many situations: to write, read, organize, plan, follow a conversation, or perform mental math. It helps them stay focused and engaged with the task at hand. A poor working memory, on the other, can negatively affect daily life in multiple ways:

  • You constantly keep losing your cell phone, wallet, or keys
  • You want to join a discussion, but until your turn to speak comes, you forget what you wanted to say
  • You plan to do some leftover office work at home but forget to bring the required items with you
  • You can easily get lost, even if you have just been given the directions
  • You have lots of unfinished projects as you become distracted soon, forget about the earlier ones, and start working on another project
  • You find it difficult to follow a conversation as you forget what the other individual has said
  • You often miss deadlines at work because you are unable to follow through on projects
  • You have to reread a paragraph multiple times to understand and retain what it says

No matter what you do, a good working memory is needed to help you do it.

Top Tips to Improve the Working Memory

Your working memory is like your personal mental workspace. When it’s functioning as it should, you can hold onto information in your mind and mentally manipulate it. But what if your working memory isn’t working as it should be? Here’s what you need to do to give it a boost.

Process information in bite-sized pieces instead of big chunks

If you have a lot going on in mind, chances are you’ll end up forgetting most of it. So break down those big chunks of information into bite-sized pieces and work on them one at a time. For example, suppose you are hosting a party, and a lot needs to be done. You have everything on your mental shelf, including cleaning, cooking, shopping, and setting up the table. To ensure you do not forget any of it, focus on one area, such as cleaning, at once. Ignore the rest until you are done with the one at hand.

Make checklists for the win

You cannot deny the importance of a checklist in improving working memory. These checklists divide your one big mental space into small compartments so you can readily recall the memories stored in each one. For example, if you are always fussing about forgetting things at work, make a checklist of all the work that needs to be done as soon as you enter your office. It may include:

  • Listening to voice messages
  • Returning calls
  • Reviewing yesterday’s progress
  • Checking and returning emails

Develop and practice fixed routines

Forgetting your car keys every day as you leave the house? Try placing them in the same place every time, preferably somewhere close to your main door. Practicing this fixed routine can help you broaden your working memory.

Dust off your old guitar

As Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish physician, explains in his famous book “The Overflowing Brain,” improving working memory involves exposure to a high neural activation. In simpler words, the more you practice a certain skill, the larger the brain area it activates with its particular sensory experience.

For instance, the area of the brain that gets activated by the sound of a guitar is much larger in a regular guitarist as compared to someone who doesn’t play the instrument. This way, you cannot only hold more information on your mental shelf but also learn to stay focused while preventing distractions.

Experiment, experiment!

You may notice how you can perfectly remember the lyrics of all your favorite rap songs but cannot recall a simple list of groceries whenever you head to the store. Similarly, others find that visualization helps them remember stuff better. Find out what works the best for you and use it to improve your working memory.

For instance, the next time you have to take a trip to the store to buy some eggs and bread, visualize yourself heading to the aisles and picking up the items in your mind. Images hold more power than words and can help you aptly remember everything you need to purchase.

Cut back on stress

It’s pretty clear by now that stress negatively impacts working memory.[2] The more stress you have in life, the lower your efficiency of working memory will be, even when the simplest of all cognitive tasks. It’s like a frustrating cycle in which losing focus and not being able to meet deadlines causes stress which, in turn, lowers your ability to maintain focus. However, mindfulness is one way to break out of this cycle.

As little as two weeks of mindfulness training can increase working memory and overall performance. So when you notice the unwanted thoughts slowly creeping into your head, take a deep breath and empty your mind completely, even if it is for a few minutes only. This simple practice can help you control your focus and regain your composure so you return to work in a better mental position.

Multitasking is a no-no

According to a study conducted at the University of Sussex, multitasking shrinks certain areas of the brain, leading to reduced attention spans. So instead of juggling different tasks together, complete one at a time and then move on to the next.

Sweat it out

Studies investigating the link between exercise and working memory have delivered exciting results over the years. While exercise reduces working memory during and immediately after an intense bout of exercise, a dramatic surge is noticed following a short recovery period in regular exercisers as compared to those who aren’t physically active.

Exercise also indirectly improves memory by improving sleeping habits, regulating mood, and reducing stress: three key areas that affect cognition.[3]

Keep Going!

It is essential to remember that, just like many other parts of the human brain, working memory is something we do not fully understand yet. We know that our brains usually have a limited capacity to hold on to information and can find it challenging to deflect distractions.

Ultimately, whatever you choose to increase your working memory – whether it is learning a new skill, making a checklist, or exercising – helps you stay focused amidst the millions of other things trying to snatch away your attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is the capacity of our working memory determined?

The capacity of working memory depends on the category and features of the elements or chunks. For instance, the human brain can hold more digits in its working memory as compared to letters. Similarly, it holds onto more short words than long words.

What is the average duration of working memory?

Every new piece of information in working memory is temporary and has one of the two fates; getting encoded into long-term memory or decaying and eventually being replaced. Unless you actively rehearse it, every piece of information in the working memory only has a short duration of up to 15 seconds.

How does working memory interact with long-term memory?

The brain is undergoing a continuous transfer of information between working memory and long-term memory, both in terms of retrieval and transfer. For example, the brain may shift any newly-acquired information into long-term memory to storage, such as while studying for a test. On the contrary, it may retrieve information from the long-term memory into the working memory in order to actively use it, for example, while attempting the test.


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