Episode 4: What is Working Memory and How Can We Strengthen This Skill? - The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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What is Working Memory and How Can We Strengthen This Skill?


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Full Transcript for Episode 4

Welcome to the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

I'm Dr. Erica Warren and I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts.  Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and stories for everyday life.  We explore executive functions and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind. Come learn how to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals.  This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.

This podcast is brought to you by Bullet Map Academy. We have free dyslexia screener app called dyslexia quiz.  It's a fun, engaging and interactive app.  Try it now.  Just search for dyslexia quiz on the app store and see how your score differs from your friends and family.

This podcast is brought to you by www.goodsensorylearning.com where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning.

Finally, you can find Dr Warren's many courses at www.learningspecialistcourses.com .  Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.


So, what's the topic for this week?

What is working memory and how can we strengthen this skill?

So, working memory is a complex cognitive skill that enables learners to hold pieces of information in the mind and manipulate them.

It is often described as a mental workspace and helps individuals manage their memories.

Stay focused, block distractions, and stay abreast of their surroundings.

The question is, well what makes up working memory.

Okay so from my perspective I'm not a Doctor of Education and Psychology, like you are.

I have a much more basic understanding of it - from a dyslexia tutor practitioner perspective, I have always thought of working memory as you've got short term memory, you've got long term memory.

But before anything gets to your short term or long-term memory it goes through your working memory.

And I've always kind of thought of your working memory like a tray which carries information temporarily from one place to another and the other places like your short-term memory or your long-term memory or it just gets deleted.

It's like a temporary quick whiteboard that you wipe off something that you don't actually need anymore.

So, your brain is kind of doing a bit of housekeeping, it's not putting everything into long term memory or short term memory.

It's saying oh that's not needed, I can dispose of that.

But then there's some people who kind of delete stuff from their working memory before it gets to their short term or long-term memory.

It's like a tray goes along and it falls off the tray on the way there, you know.

So that's my sort of primitive understanding of working memory.

How would you critique that as a sort of analogy?

I would say that that is fairly accurate I think and there are many different theories out there.

So, I think it is more in line with some theories and not so much with other theories.

The theory that I personally like the most, that really resonates with me and makes the most sense to me as an educational therapist because I really want to be able to get down and dirty and figure out how to strengthen that skill for my students that have those weaknesses.

Is the theory by Alan Baddeley.

He really came out with it in the early two thousands and the way that he presents it is that we have something called sensory memory and this sensory memory enables one to briefly retain the environmental information that enters cognition through our senses.

So that would be sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.

So, all of that information comes into our mind, it goes into the short term memory that holds a small amount of information in an active but usable state.

And then it's interesting because then we bring in the executive functioning.

So, this is the interesting thing is working memory is really under the umbrella of executive functioning and executive functioning is I like to call it the conductor of cognitive skills.

So, what we have to do is we have to take this information that we get in through our senses and make sense of it.

And he talks about two things.

Two ways that we process this information.

He talks about the visual spatial sketch pad, which is kind of your inner eye or your ability to visualize where you can kind of see what your maybe if you're doing a multiplication problem, you can see it in your mind's eye.

And then he also talks about the phonological loop which is the inner voice.

And I like how he talks about phonological loop because we've all done this when we're trying to remember something, we'll say it over and over and over and over and over again.

And even when we stop saying it out loud it just kind of keeps rehearsing over and over and over again in our mind.

And he kind of places both of these in an arena that he calls the episodic buffer and I think about it as an episodic meaning like an episode and maybe an arena is a good way to think about it.

So, it's an arena of a specific episode which is your conscious awareness.

So, within that arena we have the visuals but we're visualizing in those thoughts that with all of that sensory input that's come in but we also have our inner voice supporting us.

And while we're doing this we've got our inner voice, we've got our inner visual, we either place information into long term memory from this experience or we also dip into long term memory so that we can use that in our working memory.

Oh, I see you bring it into the arena.

That's right, you bring it into the arena and meanwhile we've got the conductor conducting this orchestra of cognitive skills.

Oh, wow okay - I've never really interesting.

Okay so let me can I translate it into what I'm seeing here as you're talking?

I'm seeing like an amphitheater or theater when you're talking about an arena.

You know I'm thinking about this central theater where you get sensory information coming in but it doesn't just flood into theater.

It gets placed into either the visual, what did you call it?

The visual sketch pad?

Yeah they call visual spatial sketchpad which is interesting.

Ah yeah. So it's either on a drawing loop spatially moving around in that sort of visual spatial loop or you've got an auditory loop happening at the same both of those and then in this arena where you're building this it's like a massive jigsaw puzzle.

You know you've got some pieces coming in and then you bring in memories from your long-term memory to connect this all in together.

And then from there you send it back over to your long-term memory to to store it away.

Is that how it works?

Yeah, there's just this kind of constant communication between the episodic buffer.

We're calling the amphitheater and long-term memory.

Where so how do we know this?

Erica, I mean you said theory. I mean like where are the facts?

Where is the science here?

What tests have they done?

How do we know this?

I mean how do we know what's right and what's wrong when it comes to actual working memory and how to really help it and work with it?

Well, you know, we can't really take it apart literally because it's it's not something that we can touch, you know, memories and all of this.

We can only come up with theories and Alan Baddeley worked on it for many decades and to me it makes the most sense.

And he did a lot of research, but a lot of other people have had their own spin offs and had slightly different ways of describing it.

But I think, most people agree that there is this when we use our working memory that there is this visualization component and there's this inner voice component.

And and a lot of it is just about analyzing experience so I can't do necessarily quantitative.

You can definitely do qualitative studies.

I guess they have quantified it, they can look at the brain and they can you can you measure someone's working memory because I remember when I got my dyslexia assessment done, I was told that I had a smaller working memory than a typical thinker.

They have assessments out there that claim to measure working memory and I think most of the activities have to do with are the students that you're testing or the individuals that you're testing, are they able to visualize?

Are they able to use their individuals and their inner voice?

It really has to do with whether they are able to place things into long-term memory access them?

Are they able to hold the pieces in their mind and manipulate them?

So, you know it's interesting because I love the fact that he brings in this spatial component into it because I really do believe that there's a difference between visualization and specialization.

There's no such word.

I made that up spatialization, but I couldn't visualize for many years and I specialized.

I can imagine myself in space.

I love the fact that he brought that into it.

I think you know, the more we study this, the more we pick it apart, the more we use brain scans to I mean you know with brain scans they can see whether the visual cortex is activated.

So, if your visual cortex is activated, that is an indication that you're visualizing.

So they can do studies by looking at the brain and looking at what parts of the brain are activated.

Are your auditory processing areas of the brain?

Are they activated?

So they can see whether someone is is using their phonological loop is using their inner visualizations and and what I like to do is I like to work with kids and or even adults and teach them how to visualize and how to use it in their working memory.

So when they're trying to hold pieces of information and manipulate them?

Are they visualizing or not?

And if they're not then we want to go back and strengthen their visualization skills.

Another question is are they using their inner voice?

It's funny because I use my inner voice so much.

I assumed everybody does, which is unfortunately what we all do, we always assume that everybody processes the way that we process, but that's not true.

I have a friend that doesn't use his inner voice and so one of the ways that he can strengthen his working memory is to be more mindful about using his inner voice.

So does that mean I think sometimes I know I have a poor working memory and so I have to be much more intentional about making sure I don't drop the ball literally as it were.

It's like a process of juggling and how many balls can you bits of information can you process at the one time and that's it you said it, I have to be more mindful.

So, I have to be much more intentional.

Talk myself, you know, like I'm going to the shop and instead of going on autopilot and going home, I'm like I am going to IKEA, I am going to IKEA, I am going to IKEA, I am going to IKEa, I can stop saying I'm intentionally activating the phonological loop because I know that has to start spinning and it keeps spinning once I spin it quite a few times, I can sort of say right, that's now locked into my awareness and I won't drop that one because there's some momentum to it.

What's the dynamic there?

Because I've noticed that I have to repeat it quite a few times, but then once I said it quite a few times what's happening there.

Well, you're bringing it more into either short term or long term memory, you know, it's it's that repetition which is a memory strategy in essence, but you know, it's funny because you can actually use your sensory input to also help you with working memory.

So, what we can do is we can actually use our sensory input which is what comes into this episodic buffer, which is the arena to help us.

It's really about using memory strategies.

For example, if I don't want, if there's something that I really can't forget, I might cross my fingers and I'll tell myself I'm not going to stop crossing my fingers, so I don't forget to do that thing.

So now all of a sudden, I'm bringing in my sense of touch to help me hold on to that information.

So yes, there is the inner, there is the inner voice, there is the inner visual, but you can also use outer things.

You can put a sticky note on your Chester or and I think, you know, in the future we'll probably have all sorts of ways of putting reminders virtually in our reality, I think that we're not far away from that.

Um unfortunately I think the more we use technology, the lazier our brains get and it's really important for us not to use too much technology because then we're not activating the brain enough.

And a good example of that is how we all use our phones to get from place to place.

So, maps, google maps, all of these different ways of being able to help us navigate from 11 place to another.

And I think what's showing is that we've become so reliant on that, that we're not developing the visual spatial skills so that we can do it ourselves independently.

Some people will use, you know, google maps to get from Point A to point B and they never really learn it automatically because they've become reliant on those tools.

So, the tools are great, but we should only use the tools as a bridge, as a scaffolding to get us to a certain point and then we have to strengthen our brains enough so that we can do it independently.

You've talked about strengthening your working memory.

Yeah, I find it really helpful to have an as accurate an analogy or metaphor as possible and I'm not I'm wondering if this whole arena thing is an accurate analogy because an arena feels like a big space, whereas a tray feels like a small space and it's like a working memory and I've noticed this with a number of my students.

So, with people with dyslexia have got notorious difficulties with working memory.

And so, what happens is you give someone with dyslexia four tasks to do.

I want you to do this, I want you to do that, I want you to do this, I want you to do that 1234.

Can you do that?

And you go, yeah, I'll go to them.

And so I want you to go to IKEA, I then want you to go to the butcher's.

I want you to change the address on the bank statement and then could you please put the cover on the boat?

And I've said yes to all four of those and I've understood all four of them.

But what was the first one?

Because the first ones like, dropped off the tray because the tray for me only has three spots in it and I know there's only three spots in it.

So, I say to my wife, oh, is it going to be more than three things?

And she's like, yes, it's going to be more than three things.

Right, let's just write it down straight away because I know it's going to drop off, I've got to put it somewhere.

So, what's your take on that kind of size of working memory and actually functionally using on a day to day basis?

Well, I wouldn't necessarily call that working memory, you could kind of turn it into a working memory activity by using your visual spatial sketch pad and your phonological loop.

I would integrate a memory strategy and knowing you and that visual and spatial is good for you.

As I would teach you a memory strategy where it's called there a number of different names for it.

There's they call it the memory palace.

It's also the method of lo chi and what we would do is we would come up with a visual and a spatial sequence that would help you to remember those three or those three or four steps.


Okay, so I'm being kind of lazy compared to that.

I just write it down.

But the point is there's a temporary moment is the temporary moment before it goes into your short term or long-term memory, your working memory.

Well, think of it as an episode.

That's why he calls it the episodic buffer, it's your consciousness.

You have to be conscious to use your working memory, you can't use your working memory unconsciously.

It is a very conscious space.

And you said in order for me to have a better working memory, have to be conscious about it.

You didn't use those words.

But that's yeah, that's right, that's the right word.

So yes, it is an intentional and it is a conscious space.

So, if we were to take the arena, why don't we say it's the spotlight of what you're focusing on in the arena, that's your working memory and you're looking at a very specific episode, but it's the spotlight and what in that spotlight can you rehearse verbally and what can you visualize?

So, I for example have a game which I used to help teach my students to improve their working memory.

I have quite a lot of games, but this is just an example of one is called Memory Master and I give them a series of things that they have to do.

It's 1 to 6, actually be 2 to 6 so that they have to remember a sequence and they get to pick their difficulty level and then I'll say things like hop on and then I actually look at the card and if they say give me six items, I'll say okay and they're all activities like hop on one leg, spin in a circle, curtsy and so and then the first thing I do is I say repeat it, there's the phonological loop, say it out loud.

The second thing I do is I say, well can you remember it, they usually say no, I'll say okay, I want you to visualize it and I want you to describe to me your visualization.

But when you visualize it, let's go ahead and try to link those visuals together.

So, it tells a little bit of a visual story and then the last thing that they have to do, we see if they can remember it and usually they can remember some and the last thing they have to do is act it out which gets it into their body which is yet another memory strategy which I think brings in some of that special piece.

And it's really remarkable.

I've got kids that are very poor working memories that can remember a sequence of six things what I tell A lot of my parents is play this game with them and then continue to play that game when you give them a series of things to do.

So, after you say give them the sequence of directives, have them repeat it, visualize it, act it out and go do it.

And that that is a way of consciously strengthening your working memory.

You know I have a lot of other activities that do give students kind of games and I guess it's activities that they have to do that also strengthen working memory in the sense that they have to hold pieces of information in their mind and manipulate them.

It could be images, it could be usually a combination of images and colors and also that where they constantly will have a switching of the directives so that they have to constantly be conscious have that spotlight and that's so much of what working memory is about that that spotlight that consciousness and that consciousness enables you to dip into long term memory and then also dip into reality and pull it all together so that it becomes a nugget of information that can then be stored permanently into long term memory or for as long as you need it.

Does that make sense?

Did we get it?

Do we get the metaphor down?

And I've never gone quite this deep in the metaphor.

I have never brought the arena into it in the spotlight, but I like it.

I like the spotlight.

The spotlight makes sense to me.

The arena is a little bit confusing because yeah, the spotlight is working memory but understand that the arena is important because really it's a portion of executive functioning and again executive functioning.

I sometimes even call it the Grand central station of the brain.

You know, it's the conductor of cognitive skills and then yeah, and then the working memory is the spotlight in that arena.

So, if you think of the conductors conducting an orchestra in the arena, but maybe it just spotlights on, you wouldn't necessarily spotlight on an instrument, you would spotlight on the whole sound if you if you wanted to use a sound analogy versus a visual analogy.

So, there are lots of different analogies that you can use.

But I think the spotlight, if you use the visual analogy, you would have a play going on and it would spotlight a particular interaction and scene between one person or two people and you would have the director of the whole plague going on would be the executive function of that theater of what is meant to be happening.

And your working memory is spotlighting on one particular element of it at that moment in time, right?

It's yeah, it's that moment and it's and it's you being conscious about that moment because again, working memory doesn't work unless you're conscious.

So, you think it's directly proportionate to your degree of consciousness and intention on it.

That's a really interest.

That that would be a really interesting research question.

So, you can some people use their working memory when they're automatic.

That's a really good question.

If you're doing something to automaticity, you know, for example, if you were a mathematician and you visualize long multiplication and you can do it in your mind's eye.

That is working memory.

So that's a really interesting question.

But can that become automatic?

So, can your working memory become automatic?

Well, I would say that maybe some people can do that, that their working memory can be automatic.

However, if they were doing that, they wouldn't necessarily grow.

They would just be maintaining.

I went to uh british dyslexia association training on workplace needs assessment for helping people in the workplace, looking at what kind of assessment of needs they can have accommodations in their work.

It was fascinating.

They talked about working memory and she talked about it in a in an unusual way that I had not heard before.

I'd just like to look at my notes and share it with you.

Sure, I've heard other metaphors to some people like to refer to working memory as an air traffic controller.

Actually not. That's not even working memory. That's executive functioning.

But I guess working memory would be a part of the executive functioning which would be the air traffic controller.

And in that metaphor, I guess your working memory would be more like a an airplane landing.

You have to be conscious about landing that airplane or taking it off or even flying it but it definitely is focusing on a specific episode.


Yeah, this I think I haven't got it accurately but I think I've got some notes here.

They were describing working memory as the link between short term and long term a grabber between a grab.

It's like one of these grabbers on in the fair where you drop the grabber down and it picks up a toy and lifts it up and drops it back down in a in the corner and you you win it and how good your working memories is, how quickly so there's the spotlight sort of element there where it sort of goes down and grab something and it's about grabbing and moving from short term into long term memory.

That's a slightly different frame of reference for me.

Can you what's your take on that?

No, I think that's accurate.

I think that's accurate because we have we have the sensory input and we can have sensory memory and that does that would be the short term.

No, that's sensory memory and then it goes into short term memory which holds a small amount of information in an active usable state.

And then it goes into the episodic buffer where we have the visual spatial sketchpad and the phonological loop.

It's where we can again manipulate and hold the information.


So, in a way we're using the word working memory as this is the place you work with your memory to make it into something that they can then go into your long term memory.

Yes, it is definitely an aide to getting things into long term memory.

And of course, we can use and I think this is where we use memory strategies.

We have to be conscious to use the memory strategy.

So, I think so many people that have weak working memories aren't really conscious enough and by using memory strategies we teach them how to be more conscious.

But I do think there are those people that well and you think of actually the people that have really amazing memories and these memory meory champions.

They're all you using strategies, they've all learned how to become conscious and to use specific strategies within their working memory so that they can really lodge things in long term memory and they long term memory all the time to attach things as well.


So, they're not enlarging their working memory or making it bigger or whatever they're just using it.

Whereas a lot of us are maybe pass a bit passive with our working memory.

We’ve got this sensory input coming in, part of it gets lodged into our short-term memory and then our working memory, we're not actually very intentionally using it.

So that short term memory just fades away, because it's not being put into the long term through this working memory process, it's not being processed.

So, and maybe we are processing it but we're not attaching it to a long-term memory.

It's a couple things.

So, we have to intentionally process it in a conscious way and intentionally attach it to another memory or create a space within memory for it by using things like visualization or other types of memory strategies.

But there's so many cool memory strategies that people can use.

And my number one, let's talk about strategies.

My number one and it might seem ridiculously simple, is a white board when I'm speaking with my wife or someone else and we're having a conversation that focuses on a multiple different things.

If it gets over one or two, I'm like, look let's just draw this out and I need to draw out and that becomes my visual whiteboard or visual sketch pad, as you say, is literally a sketch pad on the wall and then what it means is it sort of externalize is it and takes it out of this arena as it were?

I don't need to constantly be juggling it, it gets stuck and fixed there and I've got more space in the spotlight as it were to take in more information and process it and pop it up on the board and so I can keep track of what's going on and still empty my working memory as it were.

So, I've got more space to work.

It's very interesting that you say that. I think people that do, have quote unquote a weakness, working memory can't necessarily hold as many things within their working memory.

So average person can hold 5-7. So, they can have 5-7 actors in the spotlight.

But there are people that have a weaker working memory, and they may be able to only hold three or four, and then There are those two or 3.

Okay, and then there might be someone that has a really outstanding just their basic ability, enables them to remember more like nine.

But can you over time expand that number?

I think you can buy teaching memory strategies by teaching how to use visualization, how to use your phonological loop, how to use strategies, external strategy, to help you keep more players in that spotlight and I think the more you exercise it, the better you get at it sometimes it's just a matter of establishing a new neural pathway so that you approach it in a more efficient manner for you, okay, I've got another take on this.

I'm not completely sold on the ability to expand your working memory, like expand the circumference of the spotlight or the space spotlight can hold.

There are some controversies on that because for example, there are certain apps out there that claim to expand your working memory etcetera, and they can get hotly contested from the other point of view.

Can you clutter up your working memory?

So, for example, I've noticed with stressed people, like when my wife gets stressed or students get stressed it often it it constricts their working memory.

It's like if you think of them as units of space within the spotlight and I've got three units of space, but I'm really stressed about, I don't want to forget my gym bag, I don't want to forget my gym bag and my gym bag occupies a space there permanently in that working memory.

And really it should be put into an alarm or my gym bag should be put in a car or I should remember it rather than and so your working memory can be restricted by other things going on in your life.


In fact, there's research to support that.

So if somebody is highly stressed and there's a little bit of cortisol release from stress is helpful for memory, but too much cortisol actually blocks memory.

So you're right if somebody is highly stressed, their working memory won't be very good.

They they're not even able to be fully conscious because they're stuck in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is kind and then they called the reptilian part of the brain.

And because you're not very conscious, you're reacting and you're stuck in your reactive state.

And so you're right, you don't really access your working memory at that time.

But the situations where you can expand your working memory is, for example, if a child or an adult doesn't know how to visualize and if I teach them how to visualize that will expand their working memory or if I can teach them how to use their phonological loop to support them in those moments to help them with their memory that can work.

But you're right, there's some in some situations it's very again, the research shows there is a limit.

There's a limit.

That's why it's called the working memory.

It has a limited amount of space, but it's part of it's part of its pros and cons, you know, there's a purpose for it.

We even in computers, you've got RAM random access memory.

It's a temporary storage space until it gets moved somewhere in many ways, that's been used as an analogy for working memory in terms of its restricted space.

And one you're basically saying the solution is to repeat talk to yourself and visualize it?

Talk to yourself?

Use the phonological loop and use the visual spatial loop?

And I'll give you one other thing, organize the information.

So, if I gave you a grocery list and on that grocery list I had three fruits and three vegetables and three meats.

That's a lot.

That's nine.

But if I when we went through this, when we went through it, if we organized it by fruits by vegetables and buy meats you could probably remember it.

You said you could hold two or three things but by categorizing them it enables you to hold on to more because you'd be like oh what were the three fruits?

Ah that triggers it and that brings back the memory.

Yes, organizing it.

And that's where the bullet map stuff works so well.

So, you support your working memory by using a bullet map approach because it gets you to categorize and organize information.

Whether you organize it sequentially or simultaneously, that that's another way to expand working memory.

You can color code.

So, there are all sorts of ways that you can and again what would I call that?

I would call that a memory strategy.

So, I am a firm believer that there are multiple ways to expand working memory and those are just a few.

It's about really being conscious and teaching you, teaching kids conscious strategies?

And do they know how to use all those cognitive tools?

Can they visualize, can they specialize, can they use their phonological loop?

Kids can use their phonological loop.

But are they conscious?

They could be saying it over and over in their head but they may not be conscious?


It's interesting.

They could be saying the wrong stuff over and over in their head and using their working memory in a unhelpful way.


This is huge.

Thank you so much for opening that whole area up of working memory and going deep and getting us to think about it.

Help me clarify the working memory.

What have we got next in the running, what we're going to talk about in the next podcast.

So, we talked about working memory we've talked about and then we'll take it from there visualization.

We talked about working memory, the phonological loop, the inner voice.


And now executive function.

These are all elements underneath executive function in terms of executive function is becoming the executive and staying the executive of your own life and all those functions within it.

To direct your own life.

So, let's talk about personal brain trainer.

Why are we doing personal brain training?

Because we want to take responsibility for our own life.

Our own dreams.

Our own hopes, I think of it as being a dream capture.

It's one thing having a dream but it's another thing hunting down that dream and catching it and delivering on that dream or delivering on that promise and that's all executive functioning stuff.

Yes, it absolutely is.

It's a large pool.

It's a large pool.

But understanding that large pool is very, very important to maximizing your own potential.

Thank you for joining our conversation here at the Personal Brain trainer podcast.

This is Dr. Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran on check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast and please leave us a review and shares on social media until next time.

Bye bye.