How Working Memory Helps Us Navigate the Demands of Daily Life

your built-in personal assistant for finding keys, running errands, and more

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Have you ever had one of those days where it seemed like you had to be in multiple places at once—and somehow you managed to pull it off? Dr. Restak introduces us to working memory, the superhero that lives in our brain.

Brain 3D rendering
Working memory in our brains allows us to juggle many pieces of information and to integrate the order in which we attend to each item. Photo by Yurchanka Siarhei / Shutterstock

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory—the part of short-term memory that holds information temporarily—is central to the most important mental operation carried out by the human brain: manipulating stored information. Imagine Robert, a college sophomore, getting ready for his 9:30 a.m. psychology class. 

He plans to do several errands along the way. He wants to drop off laundry, pick up several Lady Gaga concert tickets, and visit the ATM machine. He mentally pictures the locations of these stops and plots out the most efficient way to get to them. 

Robert finally gets to the psychology class but finds a note on the door announcing a relocation for the day. It’s now on the third floor in another building instead of the basement. He quickly reorganizes his itinerary. 

He arrives just in time, recalls the subject of the last lecture, opens his computer, checks his notes from the last class, and gets started. Just as he begins to listen, he remembers it’s his sister’s birthday and goes online to send a birthday card. 

Around this time, the professor singles Robert out and asks him a question. He puts everything else temporarily out of his mind as he answers the question. After class, Robert mentally calculates what each person owes for the concert tickets, and he also works out in his mind an itinerary of each ticket buyer’s location and how to get there most efficiently.

To keep track of all this, Robert had to juggle lots of information and integrate it. At various times he was setting goals, task switching, inhibiting habitual responses, and working with unexpected developments, such as remembering his sister’s birthday and sending that birthday card.

Robert was keeping a lot of things in mind at once yet tuning them out when appropriate, much like a juggler keeping many balls in the air while only holding one or two at any single moment.

Finding Lost Items

Here’s another example: Remember the last time you lost the key to your front door. Imagine that you can’t find your key in the morning when you’re getting ready to go to work. 

You look for it in a very systematic way. You try to recall when you last saw it. If the key isn’t at that place, you look elsewhere while avoiding places you already looked. 

You remain focused on the goal of finding the key. You juggle all kinds of information. You ignored distractions—if someone calls, for example, you say, “I don’t really have time to talk right now; I’ve lost something important.” 

You concentrated instead on related information: Where do you customarily put the key? Why isn’t it there now? Do you have an extra key, and if you do, where is it? 

You then remember the consequences the last time you were late for work. You end the key search and call a co-worker and ask her to pick you up on her way to the office.

Importance of Working Memory

As these examples show, working memory involves a relatively small number of items that are simultaneously kept track of, and the number of items and the ease of recall varies from one person to another. Dr. Restak emphasizes that working memory can be improved with practice

It’s important to improve working memory because working memory is linked with IQ. Studies have found a correlation between high performances on working memory tasks and high scores on math, reading, and intelligence tests for children and adults.

Additionally, working memory is the first type of memory to decline with aging. One 2017 study found that older adults performed worse than younger adults in all working memory tasks, particularly those involving spatial memory.

Therefore, taking active steps to sharpen your working memory can help to improve your overall intelligence and prevent age-related memory decline. It can also help you to more efficiently navigate the demands of daily life, whether it’s searching for your keys or accomplishing errands. 

Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.