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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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2 Responses

  1. Tracy;

    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 says:

    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!

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