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What Is Working Memory?

Working memory is a form of memory that temporarily holds information that a person needs to perform immediate mental tasks. It involves actively processing and manipulating information to perform activities like comprehending information, solving problems, and making decisions.

Working memory is an executive function that plays an important role in many cognitive processes. It allows us to integrate new information with our existing knowledge. It also helps us make decisions and learn new things efficiently. 

Understanding Working Memory

You can think of working memory as a temporary holding space where certain information can be placed so it can be used or manipulated, kind of like a workspace where you pin your images, words, pages, or photos.

For example, if you are trying to solve a story problem in math class, working memory allows you to hold the numbers in your head long enough to manipulate them and solve the problem.

Working memory is influenced by a variety of factors. These include attention and access to long-term memories. To hold information in working memory, you need to be able to attend to it and you need to be able to access necessary details from your long-term memory.

Working memory and short-term memory are similar but have important distinctions. While both involve storing limited amounts of information for a short period, working memory involves actively using and manipulating the information, whereas short-term memory is more of a passive storage.

Components of Working Memory

According to Baddeley and Hitch’s model, there are four main components of working memory:

  • The central executive is responsible for directing attention and tuning out irrelevant details. This part of working memory is responsible for coordinating the cognitive processes that are responsible for the short-term holding of information.
  • The phonological loop stores information about sounds and language and creates a rehearsal loop to keep the information from decaying.
  • The visuospatial sketchpad is the part of working memory that holds visual and spatial information and can be used for doing things like creating mental maps.
  • The episodic buffer integrates phonological, visual, and spatial information. It also acts as a connection between working memory and long-term memory.

Uses for Working Memory

Working memory plays a crucial role in various aspects of everyday life. Some key uses include:

  • Solving problems: Working memory is essential for analyzing problems, considering possible solutions, and making decisions.
  • Learning: Working memory facilitates the process of acquiring and integrating new information, allowing for effective learning and comprehension.
  • Communicating: It enables the temporary storage of information during conversations, ensuring continuity and understanding in communication.
  • Reading and writing: Working memory is involved in holding and manipulating information while reading, writing, or engaging in any language-based activities.
  • Math: It supports mental calculations, problem-solving in mathematics, and manipulating numbers.
  • Completing tasks: Working memory helps organize and manage tasks such as following directions, multitasking, or executing a sequence of steps.
  • Interacting: It aids in remembering social cues, intentions, and relevant information during social interactions.
  • Planning and organizing: Working memory is crucial for planning future actions, organizing tasks, and managing time effectively.
  • Creating: It contributes to creative thinking by allowing individuals to hold and combine diverse information to generate innovative ideas.

How Much Can Working Memory Hold?

Working memory is limited in both capacity and duration. That means you can only hold so much information in your working memory for so long. 

One early theory known as the “magical number seven plus or minus two” was proposed by researcher George A. Miller. Miller suggested that people can hold around five to nine items in their active memory. 

However, subsequent research has found the number hinges on the type of “chunks” of information people hold in their working memory. For example, the capacity for numbers may be higher than for words. 

Factors like the length of the word, the complexity of the information, and the individual’s attention can also affect how much information can be held in working memory.

Simply put, many factors can affect the individual capacity of working memory. Cowan suggests that young adults can hold around four chunks of information in working memory. Age can have an impact on this ability, so the capacity is lower for children and elderly adults.

Researchers suggest that the capacity for visual information is much larger. Some suggest that visual working memory does not have a fixed capacity and depends on what is being remembered.

Factors That Might Impact Working Memory

The development of working memory can be influenced by a range of factors. Some of these include:

  • Genetics: Research suggests that working memory capacity can be affected by genetic factors.
  • Early childhood experiences: Exposure to stimulating educational environments may help children develop better working memory abilities.
  • Educational experiences: Engaging in educational activities can help strengthen working memory.
  • Cognitive training: Brain training interventions may improve working memory skills.
  • Age: Working memory tends to increase through childhood, peaking in young adulthood and then declining in old age.
  • Healthy and lifestyle choices: Factors like exercise, sleep, exposure to stress, and certain health conditions can impact working memory.

Problems With Working Memory

Several conditions and factors can contribute to difficulties with working memory. Some common ones include:

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD often involves challenges in sustaining attention and inhibiting impulses, which can impact working memory. Individuals with ADHD may struggle with tasks that require focused and sustained cognitive effort.

Learning Disabilities

Conditions such as dyslexia or dyscalculia can affect working memory, particularly in reading, writing, and mathematics tasks.

Anxiety and Stress

High levels of anxiety and stress can interfere with working memory performance. These emotional states may lead to difficulty concentrating and the ability to hold and manipulate information.


Depression can affect cognitive function, including working memory. Individuals experiencing depression may have difficulties with concentration, decision-making, and memory tasks.

Neurological Conditions

Certain neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease or traumatic brain injury, can impact working memory as part of broader cognitive impairments.

Sleep Disorders

Inadequate sleep or sleep disorders can negatively affect cognitive function and working memory. Quality sleep is essential for optimal cognitive performance.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse, including alcohol and drug misuse, can have detrimental effects on cognitive abilities, including working memory.

Medication Side Effects

Certain medications may have cognitive side effects that impact working memory. It’s essential to be aware of potential cognitive effects when taking medications.


Normal aging processes can lead to a decline in working memory capacity. Older adults may experience challenges in tasks that require simultaneous storage and processing of information.

Understanding the conditions affecting working memory is crucial for identifying and addressing challenges. Interventions, support, and lifestyle adjustments can be tailored based on the specific factors contributing to working memory problems in individuals.

Key Points to Remember About Working Memory

  • Working memory is a part of memory that temporarily holds and manipulates information for tasks like problem-solving and decision-making.
  • It consists of four main components that work together as a dynamic mental workspace.
  • Working memory is limited in capacity, typically around chunks of information, and its duration is transient, requiring active rehearsal to prevent information from fading.
  • Working memory is crucial for daily living and supports learning, communication, problem-solving, and various cognitive tasks, with factors like genetics, age, and lifestyle influencing its development and performance.


Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(11), 417–423.

Chai, W. J., Abd Hamid, A. I., & Abdullah, J. M. (2018). Working memory from the psychological and neurosciences perspectives: A review. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 401.

Cowan, N. (2010). The magical mystery four: How is working memory capacity limited, and why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57.

Cowan N. (2014). Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Educational psychology review, 26(2), 197–223.

Brady, T. F., Störmer, V. S., & Alvarez, G. A. (2016). Working memory is not fixed-capacity: More active storage capacity for real-world objects than for simple stimuli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(27), 7459–7464.