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In this lesson, we will explore what working memory is, how it relates to short term memory and how it works. In addition, we will examine the slow degrade of it as we age.

Short-Term Memory

Let’s flash some numbers really quickly on the screen (please see the video at 00:07 to practice this). What was the number in the uppermost right-hand corner?Most likely, you can remember it, if I asked the question fast enough. However, by now, most of the numbers have faded from your memory.

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It’s like you saw everything and could remember it for half a second, and then it just sort of went away.Short-term memory is a broad term used to describe ideas and recalled events held in the mind or just off to the side. I’ve always imagined memory as a desk, with the stuff on the desk currently in your short-term memory.

It is either right in front of you or just off to the side. The long-term memory stuff is in the drawers or filing cabinet – there, but a bit more of an effort to collect.Another term that is sometimes used interchangeably with short-term memory is working memory, which is a theoretical construct where an active idea or memories held briefly in the mind can be manipulated. There is a lot going on in working memory, so let’s take a brief look at all the parts to it.

Working Memory

Working memory is sort of a workspace for you to hold ideas in your mind’s eye and toy with them. Using our desk metaphor, this would be things right in front of you on the desk. The idea or memory can be actively manipulated or toyed with.

I’m currently thinking about this notebook I have sitting on my desk right now. I can pick it up – in my mind – and open it to see the writing on the pages.Let’s go back to breaking down the definition. A theoretical construct means that there is no organic way of saying where or what short-term memory is. The idea that short-term memory exists is not because we found it in someone’s brain and pulled it out.

Instead, through a series of experiments, psychologists have learned that there exists this extremely brief type of memory in which ideas are held.Working memory allows for active ideas and memories to be manipulated. Think about a dog, whatever kind of dog you want. Rotate it 360 degrees. Now make it purple and blue.

This is active mental manipulation, and it is taking place in your working memory. You pulled up what a dog looks like and are twisting and manipulating it. This one is fairly straightforward.The last, and one of the most important parts of working memory, is briefness. What was the number in the upper right-hand corner of the first image you saw? What was the number in the center? I would be surprised if you could remember it because working memory is extremely brief, lasting in the order of tenths of a second.This is why it is sometimes referred to as the visual sketchpad or an audio loop; the information stays as long as it does and then it goes away forever after a few seconds or if you get distracted.

That’s why people trying to remember phone numbers have to keep saying it; it is in their working memory. One bump, and the number is gone forever.

Age-Related Decline

Memory starts to turn against us as we get older. What was once easy to remember now becomes more difficult, even impossible to recall. Working memory is no different.Working memory is highest in the 20s and 30s. That’s good since most people get a lot of their education done in that time.

It requires a lot of working memory to hold new ideas in your head and then incorporate them into old ideas.From our 30s to 70s, there is a steady decline in working memory. It becomes harder to hold new ideas in our mind’s eye and manipulate them. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that people in their 30s to 70s suffer. What happens is that the flexible, interactive memory systems decline, but the stable learning and adaptions have increased.What I mean is, that in a purely experimental setting, a person’s memory will have shown marked decreases over time. However, as we get older, a person has learned tricks and ways to increase their memory.

So, remember the phone number 867-5309. Easy, right? Because you’re making connections between memories.After 70, it’s all kind of downhill. Old age sees drastic declines in working memory.

This is why your great-grandparent can’t seem to remember your new cat’s name or why they are always losing their keys or teeth. The systems responsible for working memory have broken down, and there is only so much other brain systems can make up for.

Lesson Summary

Short-term memory is a broad term used to describe ideas and recalled events held in the mind or just off to the side. Working memory is a theoretical construct where an active idea or memories held briefly in the mind can be manipulated. As we age, the highest our working memory will be is in our 20s and 30s.

Over the next 40 years, it will slowly decline until our 70s, where it basically drops out.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Define short-term memory
  • Describe what working memory is
  • Explain the age-related changes that occur in working memory

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