What is working memory?
Whether we like it or not, work can feel like a mental juggling act. Information comes at you from all directions. Chances are, you’re expected to manage it all with ease.
See how good you are at this kind of juggling by trying the following test. As you look at each line, the task is:
First check the math, and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on whether it’s correct
Then memorise the word at the end of the line
When you’ve been through every line, say as many of the words (in order!) that you can remember.
How did you do? The average person will remember 2 or 3 words.1
The point of this exercise is that it tests your working memory – or your mental blackboard. Working memory is like a blackboard that’s temporarily holding information that you need to complete a task. Once the task is completed, the information can be ‘erased’ from the blackboard.1
Working memory is put to the test at work
While this probably doesn’t look much like what you’re asked to do at work, it uses the same mental function that you need to be on your toes and multitask. It’s the mental equivalent of getting to the end of massive presentation, and then facing your audience’s questions. Someone fires off a question that you haven’t prepared for, but you remember coming across that information a few weeks back, when you were doing some initial research. You have to start formulating your answer before the person has even completed their question.
Work is an environment that constantly challenges you to: answer hard questions, make on-the-spot decisions, analyse information, and transform information into digestible and relevant chunks. To top it all off, you will probably have to do all of this quickly.
Can you improve your working memory?
Yes! There are a number of ways to strengthen your working memory. In fact, there’s quite a broad range of activities that can help. Something for everyone!
Play memory training games:
One of the most proven ways to improve working memory is to play “dual n-back games”.2,3
The basic idea of these games is that you’re presented with some information such a string of letters, then some more similar information, and so on, plus some other material to distract you. Your challenge is to recall something from the information that you were given two presentations back, then three presentations back, and so on. So it starts out quite hard, and gets progressively harder as you get better at it. You’ll get the idea if you try one here4
. These games challenge you to keep track of multiple pieces of information, while applying the information at the same time.
Or, if you want to try a more familiar game that has a similar effect on working memory, playing chess regularly is a good option. It helps because you need to hold onto your plans for possible moves, while also considering the possible moves that your opponent could make.3
Meditate: You can improve your working memory by meditation. It’s thought to help you ignore distractions so that you can stay focused on a task. Plus it reduces stress, which is known to be bad for working memory.2
Get enough sleep: A good night’s sleep will help you reach your working memory’s potential.2
Working memory is rewarding
Giving your working memory a workout is rewarding, but not just because you’ll increase the capacity of your memory. By doing tasks that use your working memory, you’ll trigger the release of dopamine in your brain – the chemical that makes you feel happy.3 This is why you feel rewarded when you complete a challenging task. And that explains why you feel happy when you manage to provide great answers to tricky questions at the end of a massive presentation.
Smith EE, Kosslyn SM. Cognitive psychology: mind and brain. Chapter 6, Working Memory. Available at: https://web.uvic.ca/~dbub/Cognition_Action/Cog_Psych_Readings_files/Workingmemory.pdf
Accessed September 2018.
Brain Workshop. A dual n-back game. Available at: http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net
Accessed September 2018.