The Working Memory Advantage

date Apr 22, 2019
authors Tracy Alloway, Ross Alloway
reading time 28 mins

How is working memory used?

It helped our evolutionary ancestors to advance from just surviving to thriving. It enabled our technological trajectory: from a bone club used for bashing to an iPhone used for connecting. By ignoring, overloading, or undermining your working memory, you put yourself at a huge disadvantage.

Important parts of the brain related to memory:

  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC)
  • Hippocampus
  • Amygdala
  • Intraparietal sulcus
  • Broca’s area

Working Memory definition

Working memory is our ability to work with information. More precisely, working memory is the conscious processing of information. By conscious, we mean that the information is on your mind. You are giving attention to it, shining a mental spotlight on it, concentrating on it, or making decisions about it. You are also intentionally ignoring everything else

Short term memory

Short-term memory is the ability to remember information, such as someone’s name at a party, this person’s occupation, or the title of a recommended book, for a very short period. We usually don’t keep this information in mind for long—a few seconds or so—and we would typically struggle to recall that person’s name or the book title the following day. Working memory gives us the ability to do something with the information

Long term memory

Working memory is also different from long-term memory. Long-term memory is the library of knowledge you have accumulated over the years

Two functions of the working memory Conductor

  1. Prioritizes and processes information, allowing you to ignore what is irrelevant and work with what is important
  2. It holds on to information so you can work with it.

Working memory helps:

  • Prioritize Information
  • Focus on the Important Stuff
  • Think Fast on Your Feet
  • Take Smarter Risks
  • Learn More Easily in School
  • Make judgement calls
  • Adapt to New Situations
  • Stay Motivated to Achieve Long-Term Goals
  • Stay Positive in the Midst of a Dire Situation
  • Follow Your Moral Compass
  • Be a Better Athlete

Difference between just knowledge and processsing knowledge

Because of Google, we no longer need to rely so much on crystallized knowledge—the memorization of facts, dates, or names—associated with IQ and the traditional concept of intelligence. With nothing more than a few clicks, we can pull up just about any information we need. But the key to intelligence today is being able to put those facts together, prioritize the information, and do something constructive with it.

How working memory is disadvantaged:

  1. Information Overload
  2. The Lure of Instant Gratification
  3. Time constraints
  4. Stress
  5. Retirement
  6. Pain
  7. Romance
  8. Video Games, Smoking, and Overeating

Disadvantage of retirement

Retirement marks not just a reduction of work, but also a reduction in thinking and, consequently, a reduction in your working memory strength.

Processing power of a child vs an adult

Data from thousands of people confirm that the average five-year-old can remember and process two things. Most adults are able to remember four or five items in the correct order.

Skills that are more important than memory

Why is working memory central to our ability to exercise will? Because exercising will requires evaluating, planning, and executing plans; keeping long-term goals in mind; controlling impulses; and overcoming obstacles — all of which rely on working memory skills.

Three kinds of information:

  1. Internal information — hormonal levels, mood, emotions, information from organs
  2. External information — the constant stream of information transmitted by the senses
  3. System of Principles — information—language, memory, values, culture, civics, and laws we are bound to

Why multi-tasking is bad

The results of this experiment were clear: people perform worse when they have to do more than one task at the same time.


Working memory and emotions

They conclude that depressed individuals were more likely to keep sad emotions in their working memory, while the non-depressed people keep happy emotions in their working memory. This suggests that your working memory Conductor can be a double-edged sword when it comes to happiness: you can use it to fixate on the bad, or the good. Paraphrasing Aristotle, it’s your choice.

Dopamine vs Serotonin

Dopamine is a pleasure and motivation chemical that is released in the brain whenever you do something enjoyable. The quick hit of dopamine produces a short-term feeling of euphoria, which encourages you to repeat the behavior. Serotonin is known as the Zen neurotransmitter because it is associated with feelings of deep and subtle satisfaction and long-term happiness

Rumination leading to worry and fear

Rumination is the term psychologists use when people fixate on things, often negative. It is an unproductive style of thinking that is difficult to control or stop, and it tends to be linked with strong emotions like worry and fear.

Working memory and hopefulness

These results suggest that people with high working memory tend to be more hopeful and confident about the future, while those with weak working memory tend to be more pessimistic.

Increasing resilience

The authors suggest that the discovery has an important implication: dealing with your problems enhances resiliency.

Confront your problems!

The bottom line is if you avoid dealing with your problems, it can diminish your working memory and make you more susceptible to depression. This can have a knock-on effect, because a poor working memory also undermines your ability to deal appropriately with the fallout that comes from avoiding problems in the first place. By dealing with your problems head on, you at least have the benefit of a fully functioning working memory so you can adapt to whatever comes your way.

How to deal with emotions for a better working memory

  1. Learn How to Manage Positive and Negative Emotions
  2. Have a Few Cups
  3. Filter Out the Negative
  4. Prioritize Your Choices

Two significant influences in decision making:

Impulsive system: This system is automatic, unconsidered, and hedonistic, and it encourages us to do whatever feels good. - Reflective system: This system is rational and involves strategic planning to achieve goals, deliberate judgment, and exercise of control. Hofmann directly links the strength of the reflective system with working memory.


Addictive behaviour = salience and reward + memory + drive and control

Brain compensating

So if you’ve ever wondered why it takes three candy bars to get the same satisfaction when it used to take only one, now you know that your brain might be compensating for the declining dopamine receptors.

Learning and education for kids

Three kinds of learners:

  • Verbalizers: People who prefer language-based learning
  • Visualizers: People who prefer learning with pictures and images
  • Analytical: People who prefer to focus in on the details when learning
  • Wholistic: People who prefer to look at the big picture when learning

Learning challenges as kids grow older

There are a number of reasons that explain the increase in learning problems as children age. In lower grades, the teachers often repeat instructions and provide memory support to aid learning. As students get older, they are expected to be more independent in their learning, and students with poor working memory struggle as a result. In addition, class material becomes more complex, and a poor working memory can’t handle the increased challenge.

Helping students earlier

Trying to deal with the problem at this late stage in her education requires a much greater investment in terms of time, effort, resources, and finances. Addressing learning problems early will help reduce overall costs. Helping students overcome learning problems at an earlier age could also help reduce dropout rates

Routines help!

Once you have found a routine that works, stick with it. You want students to use their working memory for the fractions and the new book.

Everything in its place

Everything in the classroom should have its proper place. Markers need to go with the markers, dictionaries need to go on the shelf, and construction paper needs to be in the proper drawer. Children who spend a lot of time searching for the pencils or water paints may forget why they needed them in the first place.

Color dots to put things in place

To help keep everything in its place, try a simple color coding strategy: use yellow dots on books, red dots on all writing or painting instruments, and green dots on all types of paper. This way, students will have a visual cue to help them remember where to find things, which frees up working memory for learning tasks.

Lesser instructions

Too many instructions can easily overwhelm a student or a whole class. The more instructions you add, the harder it becomes, and the more likely that a student will give up on an assignment. Solve this common problem by knowing what your class can handle.

Exercising working memory with ordinary things

In place of all that TV time, encourage children to exercise their working memory by turning ordinary objects into something extraordinary: boxes become spaceships, spoons become swords, Mom’s shoes become glass slippers, and Dad’s shoes become a pair of rocket boots.

Ask questions after the story

Aside from the fact that kids love having their parents read to them, being able to understand a story that is read aloud requires them to use their working memory. At the end of the book, ask them questions about the story so that they can use their working memory to think critically about what they just heard.

Long-term memory no longer requires working memory

One caveat: don’t give in when children ask to hear the same story over and over. As a tale becomes well-worn, it turns into a recitation of something they already hold in their long-term memory and no longer requires them to use their working memory. Challenge their working memory by frequently reading new stories.

Alternative for children’s stories

If you tire of children’s stories, try reading from books that interest you: a biography of a U.S. president, a memoir of a business bigwig, or an adventure tale of survival in the wild. Your child may not understand everything, but they might surprise you. Encourage your child to read to you too.

Recipes: few ingredients and steps

Making quick-and-easy recipes engages working memory. Give your child a recipe with just a few ingredients, like pancakes (flour, milk, eggs, sugar, butter) or fresh pasta (egg, flour, olive oil). Make sure you read the steps ahead of time rather than having him read from a recipe. This ensures that he will be using his working memory to hold the steps in mind at the same time he is working with the ingredients.

Draw from Memory

1. Show her a picture 1. Take the picture away

Steps for kids to improve working memory

  1. No TV
  2. Cook with simple recipe
  3. Read new stories and ask questions
  4. Draw from memory

Learning so that working memory is free to manage stress

Masters didn’t give any putting instructions to the second group while they practiced their stroke. Although both groups experienced performance anxiety, only the group that had learned the set of instructions using the working memory motor learning circuit showed a decline in their putting performance. Because they had been thinking when learning the movements, their Conductor wasn’t free to manage their anxiety. In contrast, the group that didn’t use their working memory to learn to putt didn’t do any worse when under pressure, because their working memory was free to manage their stress.

Working memory free practice!

That’s why we’d like to suggest changing this maxim to “practicing without working memory makes perfect.” How do you do it? Here are two working memory–free practice techniques we refer to as: the fatigue and fundamentals (F&F) factor.

Learning a motor skill when tired

What this means is that when you’re dog-tired, you can tap directly into that C-MC loop. And that’s a good thing if you’re trying to learn a completely new motor skill, like how to inline skate, ride a horse, or dance the tango.

Deliberate practice

He has found that deliberate practice drills individual movements into the motor cortex. The cerebellum then learns these routines through repeated episodes, which leads to layers of learning. These layers are built over time and on top of each other. The result is an increase in automaticity and efficiency of the action, meaning you don’t need to tap into your working memory to perform them.

Why breaking down helps!

That’s the key for perfecting your own practice routine. We all have a tendency to want to rush past the fundamentals and go for the flash. But it’s better to break down the movements of your sport and practice each of those submovements before linking them all together.

Keeping the working memory free

But with those movements eventually locked into your brain, your working memory is free to calculate and execute the flashiest and most effective plays in the big-pressure moments when it counts.

Fear and action

Scientists have subjected people to all sorts of stressful situations and have found that the more fearful you are, the less you think. And that’s a good thing. With working memory turned down low, you access the C-MC loop, allowing your cerebellum to communicate directly with your motor cortex, telling it to jump, punch, duck, or run much more rapidly than if you had to think everything through.

Avoid contact sports, but keep working out for brain!

To keep your working memory in tiptop shape, skip the contact sports or wait until they have reduced the risk of concussion. But don’t use that as an excuse to become a couch potato. A growing body of evidence shows that inactivity weakens the brain. Physical activity that doesn’t involve getting punched in the face or knocked out can actually strengthen your working memory. In our own research, we have found one activity in particular that can pump up your brain power.

Exercising benefits

Though most of us no longer need to run for food, our brains improve with running. Research has shown that it makes us less likely to be depressed, generates new brain cells, releases a wonderful cocktail of endorphins, and helps us deal with stressful situations.

Lifting weights vs running

Lifting weights provided no measurable improvement in working memory, while running boosted mental performance. The biggest benefit seemed to come immediately after running, when working memory abilities spiked. But even a half-hour after running, working memory was still better than before exercise.

  1. Learn from the Best
  2. Opt for One-on-One Lessons
  3. Zip the Lip and Focus On the Feel
  4. Scare Yourself
  5. Take Advantage of the Fatigue Factor
  6. Break It Down, Drill It, Then Put It Together

Reducing working memory usage for the task only

When you are learning a new skill, seek out coaches who don’t give a lot of instructions and aren’t overly chatty. Too much talking means too much working memory, which gets in the way of the C-MC loop. The best coaches help you get the feel for the motion and know when to shut up.

Fatigue is helpful for learning athletic movements!

Fatigue is a great way to lock down working memory. Being too tired to think makes it much easier for your cerebellum to absorb the feeling of athletic movements.

neuron changes in life

By the time a baby is born, his or her PFC has the largest number of neurons that it will ever have. Undergoing attrition, the neurons begin to die off, until around sixteen years of age, when numbers stabilize. Early on in life, too many neurons can be a disadvantage.


The working memory Conductor is critical for self-awareness because it allows us to give attention to the unity and ownership of ourselves. It helps us keep ourselves in mind, recognize we are not other people, and they are not us….Self-awareness, generally occurring around two years of age, is the first stage in a child’s developing theory of mind.

Self-awareness test

some red lipstick (or any other color that contrasts with your child’s skin) and put a mark of it on his nose without drawing attention to what you are doing. Then put a mirror in front of your child. If he touches his nose, as our son did, he recognizes that he is the person in the mirror.


The next stage is other-mindedness, which is an awareness that others may perceive the world differently from him. Other-mindedness occurs around age four to five.

Denial or lying an indication of working memory

As our study described below shows, the better children are at sophisticated lying, the better their working memory. Most children by the age of three or four are capable of simple denial.


But however silly these activities may seem to parents, they are no joke. They provide an important opportunity to develop the skill of reinvention and to pave the way for a far more practical purpose for theory of mind in everyday life. For example, reinvention-mindedness can help a teenager avoid conflict with their best friend by understanding their friend’s point of view and altering the way they interact with this person accordingly.

Middle ages


And unfortunately, as your working memory weakens, the demands on it don’t. In fact, your responsibilities may actually increase as you enter middle age: you get blamed if the accounts don’t add up, you need to provide your teenagers with more careful guidance because their decisions now carry greater consequences, and your finances demand greater attention than when you were at the bottom of the salary scale.

Older people are better able to use their experience

In one study, older adults show increased activation in the left side of the PFC while performing a working memory task, a pattern associated with more efficient retrieval of accumulated knowledge. In the workplace, this means that although younger employees may be able to work with more information, older employees are better able to exploit their experience in order to get the job done.

How does brain work differently

brain-imaging research has found that when older people perform cognitive tasks, their brains recruit more regions than those of younger people, and activation in those areas is more intense. What this means is that older brains can still perform the task; they just have to work harder and recruit more areas to get it done.

Too much relaxation has consequences!

Relaxation is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but the diminished expectations to perform at a certain level, the fewer challenges requiring quick thinking when others are counting on you, the fewer opportunities to use knowledge gained over years of working, the lack of using your wits to negotiate office politics, and not making an extra effort to climb the corporate ladder all diminish your long-term knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Late retirement is better

This groundbreaking research shows that the later you retire, the smarter you remain. In the United States, where we retire later than most of the Western world, the cognitive decline was the smallest: just 5 percent. Love it or loathe it, the American work ethic gives us a cognitive advantage.

Declining social network

One of the greatest challenges or losses that we face as older adults, frankly, is not about our health, but it’s actually about our social network deteriorating on us, because our friends get sick, our spouse passes away, friends pass away, or we move.”

Social interactions

  • Are you married?
  • Do you volunteer your time?
  • Do you speak with your neighbors?
  • Do you keep in touch with your children?
  • Do you talk to your parents?

Why some has Alzheimer’s?

One of the biggest unanswered questions about Alzheimer’s is why, if nearly half of those over eighty-five have the disease, the other half don’t. Why do some of us succumb to the disease while others manage to avoid it?

Different kinds of long-term memory:

  • Episodic memory: events, such as a great meal or a fun vacation.
  • Semantic memory: facts, such as Paris is the capital of France
  • Implicit memory: such as how to use a spoon to eat cereal

Library and the librarian

One of the reasons that they are unable to access these memories, is that their working memory, which searches through their long-term memory for information relevant to the task at hand (like remembering where the socks are kept or the names of family members) is severely undermined. The relationship between working memory and long-term memory is similar to that of a librarian and a library.

Language scores

When Snowdon and Kemper had a closer look at the language scores based on the nuns’ early journals, they found that all of them expressed their ideas more simply compared to the sisters who did not show signs of the same amount of plaques and tangles in their brains.

Learning new things

One exciting possibility is that the better one’s working memory is, the more likely a person can withstand the cognitive ravages of the disease. Troncoso cites research that learning new things — a skill heavily reliant on working memory — can increase the size of neurons.

Working Memory Exercises

  1. Try the Rouge nose Test (for Children Age 2)
  2. Test Other-Mindedness with the M&Ms Task (for Children Age 5)
  3. Take a Predictable-Time-Off Break (for Working Adults)
  4. Get In Tune with the Beat (for Adults of All Ages)
  5. Learn a Foreign Language (for Adults of All Ages)
  6. Don’t Retire (for Older Adults)

In evaluating how each affects working memory, if at all, we kept two key points in mind:

  • What skills are you improving?
  • How long will the improvement last?

Two kinds of transfer:

  • Near transfer: This means that when you improve certain skills in a game, you also improve in closely related areas.
  • Far transfer: This means that when you train specific skills, you also improve in other areas that are far beyond the skill you trained.

Brain games does not improve working memory

So overall, while you may enjoy playing various general brain-training games and you even get better at playing them, the evidence suggests that working memory does not improve as a result of playing these games.

Brain games for reaction time and mental rotation

In general, playing some video games or doing a general brain-training program can boost some cognitive skills, like reaction time and mental rotation. However, there is no evidence of direct improvement in working memory.

3 techniques to improve working memory

we’re going to introduce three powerful techniques—“code breakers,” “bootstrapping,” and “chunking”—that can give your working memory a big advantage.


Bootstrapping is the process of binding or joining verbal and visual information together using working memory and long-term memory

3 categories based on their effect on the brain:

  • Sustainers: These foods help prevent your working memory from deteriorating - dairy, red meat
  • Boosters and protectors: These foods encourage neuron growth and increase blood flow in the brain, which boosts working memory. They also protect against neuron inflammation and cell aging, which are associated with cognitive decline. - berries, herbs and spices, dark chocolates, dark eyed peas, plums, red wine, dark chocolate, black tea, green tea, vegetables
  • Sparkers: These foods make it easier for electrical signals to pass between neurons. The faster a signal can get from one neuron to the next without encumbrance, the clearer and better your working memory is going to be.

Use of caffeine

If a task requires just light working memory involvement, caffeine can boost performance. However, if a task requires a heavy working memory involvement, then caffeine won’t give you the perk you were hoping for, and it may even impair your performance.

When is caffeine useful?

If the job at hand is somewhat familiar and requires only a cursory manipulation of information—like making a few minor changes to an existing presentation for a new audience—then caffeine will make it easier. But if you’re putting together new information for a once-in-a-lifetime, career-defining presentation, avoid that cup until you finish.

Working memory can be helped with glucose

When the tasks were easy, glucose didn’t improve working memory at all. A difficult task quickly depletes the supply of glucose to the brain, more so than an easy task. So a quick sugar burst can bring your working memory performance back to optimum levels.

Habits to help working memory:

  • 1: The Sleep Advantage
  • 2: Clear Clutter to Clear the Cobwebs in Your Working Memory
  • 3: Move It, Naturally!
  • 4: Get Creative
  • 5: Doodle
  • 6: like Facebook
  • 7: Go Outside

Clear clutter!

Worse, the clutter was beginning to affect us all. Our older son didn’t have much space in his bedroom and that contributed to making him irritable. We both lost important documents in the mess, and of course, it was always the other person’s fault.

Benefits of clearing clutter

By virtue of necessity, the only things that stayed were those we used all the time. This had two benefits: (1) we now had space to live in, and (2) if we wanted something, we knew exactly where it was. We thought we would miss all that stuff. But the opposite happened: we felt unburdened. We were much happier, and our relationship experienced far less friction.

Searching for stuff will take a toll on your working memory

We suggest that if you want to be as productive as possible, have as few books, folders, pens, and scribbled notes littering both your physical work space and your mental work space. This goes for the clutter on your computer too. When your files are randomly scattered, retrieving what you need is a good deal harder. You spend much too much time hunting down files. And typically, as you search for any given file, you come across others that sidetrack you from the task at hand. An hour or so later, you realize you never finished the project you set out to accomplish.

Nature walk and working memory

The idea is to go on a walk or run in a random, unpredictable environment—over branches, under bushes, up a tree, and around boulders. That’s MovNat. And there’s a groundswell of belief that this type of movement is more beneficial than any gym workout.

Be like an animal!

  • Mindfulness
  • Balance
  • WalkiNg
  • Crawl on all fours


This “doodling effect” is probably due to keeping your working memory from drifting away. Doodling may keep your working memory at a minimal “arousal” state, so that you still pay attention instead of daydreaming.

Nature vs city walks

The researchers found that when people walked through the park, their working memory scores were almost 20 percent higher. When they walked downtown it only improved by 5 percent. They suggest that nature has a restorative effect on working memory and even a short exposure in a single instance can make a difference.

Bad teaching

In the United States, learning by repetition, memorization, or drilling is a technique many Americans associate with nineteenth-century schoolhouses. It has become the hallmark of bad teaching.

Short bursts

Research has shown that working memory is best used in short bursts—no more than fifteen minutes—on a single task. Any more than that, and the effort can become unproductive and inefficient.

More breaks

Teachers would aim to spend around fifteen minutes on a lesson before shifting to another subject, and children would be given regular, short outdoor breaks. Schools would increase the amount of time dedicated to physical education, and elementary schools would offer more free, unstructured play.

Office space: privacy vs interaction

The argument for the open plan is that it allows people to meet easily with others, and there may be some truth in that: perhaps it’s a good idea to have some open space where people work together on projects. But there is also a need for privacy. Our solution? A mix of closed-door spaces with open meeting areas.

Office temperature

Research from the Helsinki University of Technology shows that an office temperature of 72 degrees is associated with the highest productivity. Performance starts to wane when the temperature exceeds 75 degrees.

three basic principles:

  • Simplification: The tips and tactics here help you limit the number of unnecessary things that your working memory Conductor has to work with so you can focus on the most important things.
  • Manipulation: These exercises enhance your ability to actively work with information.
  • Support: Strategies in this section provide support and care for your working memory so it can operate optimally.


Kids’ lives can be stuffed with so many different structured activities that they never get a chance to be bored. Boredom can be a good thing for children because it encourages them to use their working memory to fill the vacuum of excitement by inventing ways to amuse themselves. At least once a week, give kids a break from all that structure with free playtime. It is important to note that this shouldn’t include watching television, which is a passive activity.

Reading books

Sit down with a good book, and preferably one that is more challenging for you to read than your usual fare. World literature is full of excellent tomes to challenge your working memory. It seems to be the case that the further you go back in time, to the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries, and before, the longer and more complex the sentences.

Recalling recipes

If you are an adult, read the recipe first and then try to cook the dish without looking back at it. This works great with meat dishes and can be even made more challenging with baking. For kids, search out simple recipes with as few steps as possible. Cooking without looking at the recipe forces you to keep both the ingredients and steps in mind, and at the same time carry them out.

Age Instructions
5 to 6 2 instructions
7 to 9 3 instructions
10 to 12 4 instructions
13 to 15 5 instructions
16 to 30s 6 instructions
40s 5 instructions
50s 4 instructions
60s to 70s 3 instruction

Learning a new language

Learning a new language is a working-memory-intensive skill. You have to use your working memory to shift a host of new words, sounds, and meanings into your long-term memory and then become familiar with manipulating them correctly.