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What is working memory?

Seven is the magic number!

The working memory store has limited space

Working memory is one of the most important areas of our memory system and vital if we're to successfully navigate through our world. It can be thought of as the ability to hold and use a limited amount of information in our heads for a short amount of time. Working memory can help us overcome a particular problem or perform a task, like mental arithmetic, using a phone number or following a set of directions. However the amount of information we can hold is limited and the information itself is very unstable - a sudden distraction and the information is lost and you have to start again from scratch. Working memory is essential for learning and development, particularly in childhood.

Seven plus or minus two

In the 1950s, a psychologist called George Miller showed that most people can remember about seven chunks of information, (plus or minus two). So for example, telephone numbers, which were typically seven digits long, were thought to be about the maximum that most people, on average, can remember accurately. In fact the actual number varies according to the type of information you're storing (numbers, words or images). To see how fragile working memory is, ask someone to remember just three consonants - for example, G, X, S. Test them in a few minutes time but instead of allowing them to think about these letters and commit them to memory, make them count backwards from 100 in jumps of 3 (100, 97, 94, 91 and so on) Ö they'll find it much hard to remember the letters than if they had a few minutes to concentrate undisrupted.

A model of working memory

Working memory is closely tied to higher mental processes such as how we learn, understand and reason. Professor Alan Baddeley of York University is best known for a landmark theory which describes a model of working memory that explains how we might acquire, learn and commit information to memory. It involves three distinct systems, controlled by a what he called the central executive.

Each system processes a different type of information, for example one deals with speech information, another is described as a sort of artist's sketch pad for visuo-spatial information whilst the third is a system that sort of links the other two together. It's thought that these systems allow us to replay and rehearse information over and over in order to help us store it for recall later on. For example, when someone gives us directions, many of us will whisper them to ourselves under our breaths, repeating them like a mantra. This process is essential for learning, though doesn't always take place consciously. The role of the central executive is both fascinating and mysterious for psychologists because it seems to be closest to the idea of a seat of learning in the brain. Put simply, if it exists, it may be the bit inside our heads that's actually doing the thinking.

Some of Baddeley's theories have been borne out by imaging studies but the popularity of his ideas are waning in favour of other models. One in particular, suggests that working memory is not a separate system, but part of long-term memory. Other theories take this further. Exploring working memory is a relatively new area of research but could hold important information about the nature of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's which involve deficits in working memory.

YOUR COMMENT

Robert
Hello my Name is Robert Gillespie I donít have a problem with number just my spelling, as I always put the word to how it sound why is this.

Sibyl
I was very interested in the comment by Melanie R. My grandson often has difficulty in remembering instructions, which may be due to the fact he is always absorbed in something else that is more interesting to him. For instance, he used to do things, such putting clothes on in the wrong order, but this has improved by dint of sheer persistence and repetition on my daughter's part. It does make it difficult for him at school with reading, etc.. Also, there is every indication he may be dyslexic, but so far a test has not shown that this is the problem. He can think and work things out for himself very well, and remember facts he is interested in. I wonder if it is hereditary, as I have difficulty concentrating, and hence find some facts just fly out of the window instead of staying in my brain. I also find some words difficult to retrieve when needed. This may be due to age, and is certainly due to lack of attention (often, I don't hear the first part of a sentence). I would like to learn how to focus my attention. Also, I would like to help my grandson.

Stephen Middleton
I often use a double system for remembering things for a very short time. If a phone number was 01224 942242 I would memorise the 942242 and just repeat out loud 01479 continuously while I am searching for a piece of paper. This increases the size of number that I can hold in my working memory.

Klavin Ura
Do any of you have a problem sometimes when you read.By that i mean comprehending what you read

Dorothy Latham
I was not surprised to hear Prof. Gathercole saying that teachers don't know enough about the way working memory works, and that this would help them understand how children learn. As an educationist all my life, and one with two degrees in psychology in which i specialised in finding out about learning, I wrote a book for teachers to help them improve children's writing, with a big focus on helping them to understand working memory and its application to the writing process. It is called "How Children Learn to Write: Supporting and Developing Children's Writing in School", and was published by Paul Chapman, of Sage Publications, in 2002. The function of working memory is crucial to so much we do in school, yet, Prof. Gathercole is right - it is relatively, as yet, unkown in current pedagogy. Let us hope that thanks to the exposure in this series of programmes by the BBC that a momentum of better undeerstanding will be given impetus.

Chris
Hi, Having listened to your progamme on working memory it helps to explain my sons problems at school, he is nine and has problems remembering and concentrating. Please could you send any information or contact details on ways in which his school and I can help him. Please send to cbrockwell@btconnect.com

Rami (website team)
Dear Melanie R Your email address seems to be either incorrect or is temporarily out of action. We've been unable to send you a reply. Please try again. Thanks.

Jeanette Carlsson
Hello, I am an educational psychologist in the process of introducing an intensive training programme for working memory, which has been developed by a Swedish neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute. It is not the answer to all problems with working memory but has proved very successful particularly for people with attention problems. It is individually based and briefly consists of computerised exercises for 5 days/week for 5 days. Research has been very encouraging. More information can be found on the website: www.cogmed.com Jeanette

melanie R
My son William struggles enormously at school as he finds it so hard to process info taught to him. After hearing about working memory difficulties on your radio 4 prog on 9/8/06 at 9pm in the car, it described my son completely! How can I get more info and is it possible to contact the person (no name)who spoke about this condition of poor working memory.I really need to help my son as he suffers so much at school with remembering maths methods, comprehension exercises etc. He certainly isn't stupid, but if I ask him to go upstairs to get 3 items, he will have forgotten by the time he reaches the top of the stairs! I am also a Head Teacher in an Independent Sch. and would be interested in lots more info so I can inform my teachers of this condition. I do so hope you can help me. Please send to e.mail.

Traci Rochester
I have a fantastic memory for computer programs (I learn them very quickly) but can barely cope with more than 3 drinks in a bar order! And forgetting people's names in a business meeting is such a handicap too! I have a very good visual & 'sense' awareness of how to find my way around any foreign city yet screw up on motorway driving because all the signs and numbers seem the same to me. Highly distractable, but (and it may be very relevant) I pick up on music 3 shops away or conversation 3 tables away better than the speach from my dinner companion, which I've heard the Canadians might class "High-Low frequency" (meaning close human speech is harder to hear). So I'll leave you with this thought: it may be your hearing that is letting some of you down! Any ideas on this I should love to hear, and please tell me I'm not the only one who experiences these things...

david maguire
hello i`m aged 52 my problem is i have an all round poor memory which i blame on having water on the brain as a baby i do remember my first day at school i was asked to recite the alpherbet which as far as i know had not been taught i managed to learn it after being detained for a period of time the rest of my schooling was a poor performance i basicly leared nothing and do not have a great deal of knowlage i did learn to read and write in my later teens my arithmatic is attrosuse. in the eighties i was made aware of my predicament when i was at work i was shoewen eight different jobs to remove and some of the jobs had to remain it was noticed later that i had a removed a job that was ment to remain and anothere time i put a job in a similar but wrong location after pausing to get some paper work from a near by office i walked out of the wrong door and to the wrong location which was 50 feet apart from were it should of gone i knew that it was`nt right but was being pushed by a so called work college who was presurising me to get the job done. i have since had sevrell experiances of this nature . i also have difficalty memorising journies by road & foot even thogh i have been there seral times i still occassionly get it wrong and/or lost even on the shotest of walks in new surrondings & have even asked people my way back to a place. i also have problems taking in directions i can read a map but have trouble retaining what i have digested. when i drive anywhere i consentrate on the road but not on the surroundings which i don`ttake in very well & find my way around by reading the names of roads which i try to remember from a map i do know how to get to a lot of places it`s normally the last part of a journey that fails me. the last ten year i have had difficalty replying to other colleges frends neighbours when they greet me by name i respond & on many occassons there name goes streight out of my head or comes to me to late so i just respond with a hello or alright sometimes i don`t recall the name for a long time even days later i could be talking about someone and there name ( or places i have been to that day) alloudes me (also when i write i miss the odd letter out of a word and always make mistakes). i did go and see my doctor and he sent me to see a nouroligist at old church hospital romford i was given an m:r:i, scan my problem was put down to lack of concentration. my own assesment is that i`m thick. ps/note; i have not used a spell check.

Sally
My son has been described as having auditory processing difficulties (nothing to do with deafness) and his brain has not attained binocular fusion (aged 10) - his left & right side don't seem to be connected. He can "spell for England" but when it comes to numbers it's a disaster. He cannot possibly follow 5-6 instructions in the busy classroom - but WHAT do we do to help this?

Gill
I love words, and as I work with junior school children, need to be on the ball when it comes to spelling etc and numbers, but I have a real problem with some areas of numerology,especially slightly more abstract forms of maths, such as percentages. I find the only way to sound knowledgable to the children is to do a lot of preparation before lessons and keep looking at crib notes!

Catrin
ref: 'Robert' I'm very similar. I am an awful speller but numbers are fine. I'm not sure what kind of a learner I am. I think I do a bit of everything and am a mixture of visual and logical. I think the 'imagining numbers changing' as Dalek suggested makes sence.

May
It's great to read this page and see so many other dyslexics commenting. I'm suffer like many others here do. I'm great with numbers but spelling and words just don't stick. There seems to be plenty of ways to help children remember their words and spell (dyslexic associations, help in schools etc), but what about us adults who want and need to improve, especially now we're all bashing at keys to comunicate!

David Evans
I am David, Im 25 and I study modern languages. The common thing of studying words is that retaining and then using them is at times difficult. However If I hear,see,repeat write and then use a specific word I have got it forever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Simon
Miller's 7 plus or minus 2 was a tongue in cheek paper. In fact, the real limit of working memory is 4 plus or minus 1. Though Miller's paper is endlessly quoted (even by cognitive psychologists), it is wrong. See Nelson Cowan's account of the magical number 4.

Mary
I am a visual learner, and spent most of my schooldays and university days getting by by cramming from books at the last minute. When I was a young psychiatrist I found the elderly people I was sent to see (to find out if they were dementing etc) had much better short-term auditory memory than me!! The advent of Powerpoint for lectures has been wonderful for - if the speaker gives print-outs of slides. If I lose the thread, I no longer panic, and then tune-out, as I can check back and pick it up again. I have most of my cognitive function well above the 90th centile (i.e IQ over 130) but a short-term memory on the 25th centile - it really lets me down. Why? I have adult ADHD.

Eileen Murtha Brown
I am dyslexic, although i am told i have a very high IQ. If i have working memory difficulties how can this be so ? If working memory is closely linked to how we learn and higher mental processes, understanding and reasoning, how do i then make the leap if these processes are in someway flawed?

Perry
For alternative theories encapsulating short-term memory, I'd suggest interference-based accounts of immediate memory which code items and order information across a wide range of timescales, such as Nairne, 2002 or Brown et al (not published yet). In my opinion, the term Working Memory has more use as an umbrella term for immediate memory and attention rather than a specific explaination of how our verbal/visual short-term memory works.

Daniel Showell
I took the "explore your memory" test and did averagely well on most of it but found the "Sentences - working memory span" very dificult. I was only able to get 2 sentences correct (the lowest sore available). I would very much like to know the normal range for this test. My literacy skills have always been poor and I wonder if it is due to my poor working memory span. My score on the digit span, which I understand also to be a test of working memory was average (6). What different aspects of working memory are these tests examining. Any advice on these points would be gratefully received. Yours faithfully Danny saradanshowell@aol.com

catherine
Hello, I am dyslexic and have a very poor working memeory. this means i am always forgetting words. especilly in conversations,sometimes at work if I was to ask for the risk management report - i might have risk management on the tip of my tongue but catch sight of the fridge- so what comes out is "have you seen the fridge report". I also do spoonerisms without wanting to. Its can be embrassing when you end up askking the manger about the winimum mage. and as for neumomincs - forget it- i cant even spell it !

Midlander
In the BBC test, I remembered all the numbers. Perhaps this has got something to do with trainspotting. People have said I'm good at mental arithmetic, although I didn't like it at school. I got all the 'final' words right. I used to teach English. I don't know if reinforcement of this kind happens.

jdajflj
You should add temporal lobe epilepsy to your list of conditions. Memory impairment is common in people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy (area of brain which contains the hippocampus, responsible for working memory). My poor memory affects me on a day-to-day basis. People do not seem to recognise it as a disability - the same goes for epilepsy which involves memory loss - because it is not immediately obvious. Please - at no stage - mock people with memory difficulties as a consequence of a disability: brain damage, for example. reljlj

Admin (website team)
Dear Matt, thanks for your comments. Which theory offers the best alternative? We'll try to update the page as soon as we can.

Matt Munro
I'm a psycholgy graduate and I have to say you are giving Baddelys theory a spurious weight. The "central executive" was not a leap forward in memory reasearch, it is a huge explanatory gap in his model, this gap has been recognised for decades in various models, and giving it a new name does not solve the problem.

Dalek
Probably cause of the learner type you are; I'm a visual learner and get' spelling wrong but is excellent at numbers. Maybe I do because I can imagine numbers changing but not letters, maybe if your a visual learner then that is what happens...

Robert
Hello my name is Robert Scott. I'm very good with with numbers. But very bad at spelling. I'm 25 and have all ways had a problem with letters but not numbers. Why is this?

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