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Why working memory matters in the knowledge age: study

Do you ever have days when you wake up and every­thing seems wrong with the world? Hope­fully for most of these types of days are not the norm but the excep­tion. How­ever, there are some peo­ple who see every­thing as ‘half-empty’ instead of ‘half-full. Using cutting-edge psy­cho­log­i­cal research, I am inter­ested in find­ing out if it really matters–Does it mat­ter if we see the glass as half-empty?

We are on the cusp of a new rev­o­lu­tion in intel­li­gence that affects every aspect of our lives from work and rela­tion­ships, to our child­hood, edu­ca­tion, and old age. Work­ing Mem­ory, the abil­ity to remem­ber and men­tally process infor­ma­tion, is so impor­tant that with­out it we could not func­tion as a soci­ety or as indi­vid­u­als. One way to visu­alise work­ing mem­ory is as the brain’s “Post-it Note”: we make men­tal scrib­bles of bits of infor­ma­tion we need to remem­ber and work with. For exam­ple, we use work­ing mem­ory to remem­ber direc­tions while dri­ving or someone’s name and phone num­ber. With­out it, we would be lit­er­ally lost; we wouldn’t know how to get to that impor­tant meet­ing and would for­get impor­tant con­tacts. Work­ing mem­ory is crit­i­cal for many activ­i­ties at school, from com­plex sub­jects such as read­ing com­pre­hen­sion, men­tal arith­metic, and word prob­lems to sim­ple tasks like copy­ing from the board and nav­i­gat­ing the halls.

Work­ing mem­ory makes a dif­fer­ence beyond the class­room walls as well. Peo­ple with supe­rior work­ing mem­ory tend to have bet­ter jobs, bet­ter rela­tion­ships, and more happy and ful­fill­ing lives. Peo­ple with poor work­ing mem­ory strug­gle in their work, their per­sonal lives, and are more likely to expe­ri­ence trou­ble with the law. More recently, a grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies demon­strate that work­ing mem­ory is also impor­tant for our men­tal health. In a recent study that I con­ducted with 20-year-olds, I found that peo­ple who view the glass as half-empty but have good work­ing mem­ory are less likely to suf­fer depres­sion com­pared to those who view the glass as half-empty and have low work­ing mem­ory. So while we may think that see­ing the glass as half-empty, hav­ing good work­ing mem­ory acts like a buffer to pro­tect our men­tal health.
What about you? What does your work­ing mem­ory tell you about your world-view? Why not find out by par­tic­i­pat­ing in an online study. Here is what you will have to do:

1. Take some mem­ory tests: Don’t worry, I don’t want to know how often you for­get where you left your car keys or if you can remem­ber your loved one’s birth­day. You will have to do some­thing much eas­ier. You will see some shapes and just have to remem­ber where you saw them on a grid. Try to do this as quickly as you can with­out mak­ing mistakes.

2. Next, tell me your views about dif­fer­ent sen­tences, like “I felt hope­ful about the future”; or “I was both­ered by things that don’t usu­ally bother me”. Please rate how strongly you feel these types of state­ments applied to you dur­ing the past week (not how the state­ments may have applied to you at any point in your lives). You will be asked to rate the sen­tences using one of the four options:

a. rarely or none of the time (less than once day);
b. some or a lit­tle of the time (1–2 days);
c. occa­sion­ally or a mod­er­ate amount of time (3–4 days);
d. most or all of the time (5–7 days).

The study is launched in con­junc­tion with the British Sci­ence Fes­ti­val and you can par­tic­i­pate Here.

Tracy Pack­iam Alloway, PhD, is the Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Mem­ory and Learn­ing in the Lifes­pan at the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling, UK. She is the author of over 75 sci­en­tific arti­cles and books on work­ing mem­ory and learn­ing, and has devel­oped the world’s first stan­dard­ized working-memory tests for edu­ca­tors pub­lished by Pear­son. She has pub­lished aca­d­e­mic books, as well as books for the layper­son on Improv­ing Work­ing Mem­ory (Sage, 2010) and Train­ing Your Brain for Dum­mies (Wiley, 2010). Her research has received wide­spread inter­na­tional cov­er­age, appear­ing in out­lets such as the Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, Forbes, US News, ABC News, NBC, BBC, Guardian, and Daily Mail. She is a much in demand inter­na­tional speaker in North Amer­ica, Europe, Asia and Aus­tralia and is an advi­sor to the World Bank on the impor­tance of work­ing mem­ory. She was the 2009 win­ner of the pres­ti­gious Joseph Lis­ter Award by the British Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion for bring­ing her sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies to a wide audience.

About the British Sci­ence Fes­ti­val: The British Sci­ence Fes­ti­val is one of Europe’s largest sci­ence fes­ti­vals and reg­u­larly attracts over 350 of the UK’s top sci­en­tists and speak­ers to dis­cuss the lat­est devel­op­ments in sci­ence with the pub­lic. Over 50,000 vis­i­tors reg­u­larly attend the talks, dis­cus­sions and work­shops. The Fes­ti­val takes place at a dif­fer­ent loca­tion each year.

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