Series Psychology – Working Memory

WORKING MEMORY – An Emerging Construct of Conscious Processing.

Good times come and go, but the memories last forever ….

To a lay person this seems to be a perfect description of memory and up to an extent it is also valid but not so for a psychology student as it’s a known fact that memories do fade, sooner or later, and it’s a miniscule and specific memories that remain with us for a long time and some perhaps lifelong. Here comes the concept of ‘flashbulb memories’ and ‘episodic memories’ which don’t require any detailed examination.   To a reader of psychology, memory is a complex entity and it takes good time and energy to understand the topic in its entirety and once understood one has a leverage to use some of practical concepts while preparing for this examination particularly. So the point is that, here in this article what we intent to cover is a recent conceptual understanding of memory based on ongoing research work and that is Working Memory and not the entire Memory per se.

It’s human nature to go deeper and deeper in understanding of things and probe high seas to discover new things which hitherto lies in the ‘black hole’. And we owe a great deal to this trait of humans that now we stand at a better platform be it any aspect of life and understand things in a much more comprehensive manner and not only this, based on this, new theories and medical achievements are made. So now let’s come to the topic directly and try to do as much justice as we can do with it.

Note: We recommend and appreciate that a curious reader of Psychology comes up with more ideas and any gaps that might be left even after no intention of the same. 

So in simple terms Working Memory is about being fully conscious in the present moment. Also, whatever we do, we do it with complete focus and attention to the activity we are actually performing. This deeper dimension of alertness and consciousness, at the psychological level, has been linked to the concept of Working Memory.

As it is art to make things simpler for a reader to understand, by same virtue it’s an art to make things complex. Hence it is important to be good in both the forms and we bring you a formal definition of Working memory (hereafter referred as WM )

Working memory (WM) is a concept widely used in psychology and cognitive neuroscience to describe and refer to a system responsible for temporarily storing and manipulating information in the performance of more complex cognitive tasks (Hulme & Mackenzie, 1992) or as a ‘mental workspace’ for manipulating activated long-term memory representations (Stoltzfus, Hasher, & Zacks, 1996). Baddeley, a name intricately woven with the working memory had himself commented that though the concept was first brought into light by Atkinson and Shiffrin but not being examined in detail. Later, working on the WM model, he said, working memory is viewed as a comprehensive system that unites various short- and long-term memory subsystems and functions (1986).

Growing research in this area has open new avenues and consistently shown that WM has been quite an active player in: (1) encoding functions (2) involvement in effortful retrieval from long-term memory; (3) enactment of strategic processes; and (4) executive and attentional processes etc.

Working memory supports human cognitive processing by providing an interface between perception, short-term memory, long-term memory, and goal-directed actions. Working memory is particularly necessary for conscious cognitive processing because it permits internal representation of information to guide decision making and overt behavior. Fundamentally, working memory is one of the main cognitive processes underlying thinking and learning. By utilizing the contents of various memory-storage systems, working memory enables us to learn and to string together thoughts and ideas (Milton J Dehn).

WM is thought to be involved in most of our everyday activities, such as preparing one’s own contribution to a debate while following the other participants and incorporating their arguments. Thus, WM corresponds well to our everyday phenomenon of ‘keeping in mind’ some information to deal effectively with our environment. So does it mean that WM is an integral part of all our cognitive activities/operation that we undertake day in day out?  Fortunately, the active participation of the working memory system is not needed for all cognitive operations or behaviour.  Some Cognitive operations or behaviours, practiced overtime, and attained the level of ‘automaticity’ can be carried out in a fairly automatic fashion with almost independent of working memory  (Unsworth & Engle, 2007). However, it is clear that WM is fairly important for the acquisition of skill mastery that leads t “automatized processing”. It is also necessary when dealing with novel information, problems, or situations; trying to inhibit irrelevant information; maintaining new information; and consciously retrieving information from long-term memory.

From this, it seems clear that WM is intricately interwoven with conscious awareness. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which we are not consciously aware of the stimuli that enter WM. Indeed, prominent conceptions of WM and consciousness propose that all WM operations, from input to recall, are conscious (Baars and Franklin, 2003), and that WM provides the ‘global workspace’ for conscious awareness (Baddeley, 2003).

After pondering over the above lines, it is but obvious that some questions do arise in our consciousness at present, such as:

Were the existing explanations and theoretical base not enough to answer some aspects of memory?
Is working memory present in all beings?
Can we imagine our day to day activities without WM?
Are there Individual differences with respect to its capacity?
Is there any correlation between WM and concepts like Attention, Learning, Intelligence, emotions etc?

To begin with, let’s start with a brief historical walk.

First, let’s compare WM with its parental lineage i.e. Short Term Memory to give you a better picture.

Working Memory versus Short-Term Memory

Many cognitive psychologists and memory experts view short-term and working memory as interchangeable or consider one to be a subtype of the other. Other theorists and researchers hold the view that working memory and short-term memory are distinguishable constructs. Regardless of which view the reader adopts, it is important for assessment and intervention purposes to recognize the contrasts between short-term memory (STM) and working memory (WM). The main differences are:

  • STM passively holds information; WM actively processes it.
  • STM capacity is domain specific (verbal and visual); WM capacity is less domain specific.
  • WM has stronger relationships with academic learning and with higher-level cognitive functions.
  • STM automatically activates information stored in long-term memory; WM consciously directs retrieval of desired information from long-term memory.
  • STM has no management functions; WM has some executive functions.
  • STM can operate independently of long-term memory; WM operations rely heavily on long-term memory structures.
  • STM retains information coming from the environment; WM retains products of various cognitive processes.

Hence, as the evidence, understanding  and research work grows two different views can be seen. One, wherein the majority of empirical investigations have included short term memory, with many non-discriminating features. Other view holds that Short-term memory and working memory are separable, and short-term memory can function without working memory.


To Be Continued …