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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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