Working memory was once considered a gateway into long-term memory, but research today notes a clear difference between long-term and working memory. Working memory is associated with temporary activity among neurons in the brain, while long-term memory is connected to the physical change to neurons and the connections between them.
In the brain, working memory functions by storing and using your information over brief intervals. It’s the type of memory you rely on to remember phone numbers or quick directions. Although working memory won’t serve you 10, 15, or 20 years down the road, it is essential to tasks you need to perform right now.
Researchers theorize that working memory is crucial to the functionality of the mind because it is linked to both basic sensory processing and intelligence. Understanding the role working memory plays in our lives leads researchers to believe that it will become pivotal in our pursuit to understand consciousness.
Working memory develops throughout childhood and peaks in young adulthood. Although research shows that there are ways to strengthen the brain and improve working memory— for a short time anyway— working memory naturally declines in old age. But as we see it, there is no harm in training your brain to more efficiently use the it’s memory resources.
While scientist learn more about working memory every day, there are several theories about just how much working memory an individual has. One theory is that the working memory capacity is limited, meaning we can only keep so much information on hand at one time. Another theory states that working memory functions as more of a continuous resource that can be accessed and shared with all remembered information.
From day-to-day, working memory functions in an essential way in our lives. As researchers discover more about its connections to consciousness and cognitive function, we can continue to expect to be surprised by the power of memory.
Photo by Tim Sheerman-Chase/Flickr CC BY 2.0
Caitlin Phillips is a freelance writer spending her summer in Budapest, Hungary.