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.


  1. michael webster on August 21, 2010 at 9:05


    I found myself “chunk­ing” bits of the pat­terns when there was more than 4 fig­ures show­ing. I could remem­ber 2 or 3 chunks of paths of length 2 or 3, much bet­ter than remem­ber­ing an entire path of 5, 6 or 7.

    Am I still using work­ing mem­o­ry when I do this?

  2. Tracy on August 31, 2010 at 6:47

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for doing the study. Yes, it is fine to do this. Most peo­ple use some form of strat­e­gy (like chunk­ing) to remem­ber ran­dom and arbi­trary bits of infor­ma­tion. It can be tricky to chunck visu­al infor­ma­tion, so well done in fig­ur­ing out a strat­e­gy for this!

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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