Working Memory: Time for a Research Update

“Could you remind me, what did you just say?

Part 1: Research

Have you ever been in one room of the house and started walking towards another room with a goal in mind… Usually, you’re thinking of a task such as, “Ive got to get that file or book from the bedroom.” Halfway to the other room, you forget what you were going to get! Then you have to go back to the original room to remind yourself!

All teachers have heard of our working memory or short-term memory. By the way, even researchers act confused when I ask for the difference. The best I can get is this: working memory refers to the “cognitive load” (or the amount of “stuff”) that your brain is holding in your brain while you do a task. But short-term memory refers to the time element of that cognitive load. Usually, short-term memory is from 5-20″. If we do not process that content, it often vaporizes. But, does it necessarily have to disappear? The answer is no.

Among the many amazing things about our brain is its plasticity. This refers to the capacity to change through neural reorganization. Memory (working OR short-term) can be enhanced through several strategies. Why would you care? There are many reasons: kids follow directions better they solve problems better, make better decisions and score higher on achievement tests. But generally, class is more fun to teach. Besides, you can enhance working memory for very little effort. I’ll bet you’d like to know how…

The OLD school of thinking, based on George Miller’s classic 1956 study suggested we can hold 7 _/+ 2 items in our head. That’s out of date and you want to be up to date, right? The new research suggests 2-4 (at the most) for chunks in our working memory (Cowan, et al.). If you are not currently strengthening the working memory of your students, don’t complain about it. No one else is going to do this, so it’s your choice: improve it, or you lose the right to complain about kids not having it.

Working memory can be enhanced two ways. Strengthening neural networks (through practice) and strengthening the efficacy of the “real-time” holding capacity with chemicals are your only two choices. The neural networks get strengthened through practice. That means the use of games and activities that build this skill. As an example, if you want to get good at playing cards, a strong working memory is a must. But, how about if we set aside gambling for a moment? There are better choices we’ll get to later.

Some chemicals, like nicotine, actually enhance working memory (Lecacheux, et al., 2009). We also know that moderate glucose uptake can support memory, too (Gibbs et al., 2008). But let’s not suggest that kids light up and eat candy bars before a big test. Instead, we’ll stick with easy to boost neurotransmitters that help working memory like dopamine (Brennan AR, Arnsten AF, 2008).

Part 2: Applications

Actually, it’s easy. Brain training games and activities with a good research base behind them are not just the future of the brain, but the present. The best website for working memory is They have some excellent programs that can support brain changes. If you or a loved one (hint: son, daughter, niece, nephew, parent or spouse) does not have a good working memory, get some help. Life is tough unless the brain is working well.

Another pathway is the chemical one. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter most associated with feeling good. It’s the chemical linked with pleasure, as well as the anticipation of pleasure. Aside from using drugs like cocaine (not a good teaching tool), how can we bump up dopamine levels? I thought you were going to ask that!

Dopamine is released under many conditions. Use a variety of these in your work:

1. Make a prediction to a student, out loud, of something good about to happen (the students have to believe it and want it, of course)

2. Brisk walking, marching, brief games with spontaneous movement

3. Celebrations of joy (they must be genuine and last for at least 20-30 seconds to release any dopamine.) Get everyone involved, play upbeat music with a celebration activity

In short, good feelings release dopamine. That’s the potential of targeted teaching. But you have to commit to the process and ensure that it gets done. Don’t let anyone say, “I’ve heard of all that!” Get your staff on board and start making miracles.

Is this awesome or not?

Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Brennan AR, Arnsten AF. Neuronal mechanisms underlying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: the influence of arousal on prefrontal cortical function. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1129:236-45
Cools R, Gibbs SE, Miyakawa A, Jagust W, D’Esposito, M. (2008) Working memory capacity predicts dopamine synthesis capacity in the human striatum. J Neurosci. Jan 30; 28(5): 1208-12
Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1):87-114.
Gibbs ME, Summers RJ. Effects of glucose and 2-deoxyglucose on memory formation in the chick: interaction with beta(3) – adrenoceptor agonists. Neuroscience. 2002;114(1):69-79
Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, Perrig WJ. (2008) Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. May 13;105(19):6829-33.
Jaeggi SM, Berman MG, Jonides J. (2009) Training attentional processes. Trends Cogn. Sci. May;13(5):191-2;
Lecacheux M, Karila L, Aubin HJ, Dupont P, Benyamina A, Maman J, Lebert A, Reynaud M. [Cognitive modifications associated with tobacco smoking]. Presse Med. 2009 Sep;38(9):1241-52
Zigmond MJ, Cameron JL, Leak RK, Mirnics K, Russell VA, Smeyne RJ, Smith AD. Triggering endogenous neuroprotective processes through exercise in models of dopamine deficiency. Parkinsonism Relat Disord. 2009 Dec;15 Suppl 3:S42-5

Creative Commons License photo credit: hidden shine

One Comment

Leave a Reply