Understanding Working Memory


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How does working memory function?

The future progress in understanding working memory will require precise documentation of the demands that engage different neural circuits and codes.

How do we manipulate information?

Working Memory An Evolving ConceptIn a 26-page research paper, Working Memory: an evolving concept by Nee and D’Esposito (2018) explore how we maintain and manipulate information in the absence of external stimulation.

According to Baddeley’s working model, “working memory includes not only the retention of information but also the processing of retained information to support ongoing cognition” (1974). That working memory is distinct to long-term memory.

Nee and D’Esposito suggest that “the retention and processing aspects of working memory have been studied in isolation from one another. This ignores that “the nature of retention may change depending on the intended processing.”

Whilst I am no neuroscientist, I understand this to suggest to teachers that environment, context, motivation and an abundance of hundreds of other factors will influence one’s ability to recall.

The delay cell

In an interesting section in the paper, the authors describe some of the background issues and highlight “the delay cell”, unpicking the neural functions of working memory.  What I can determine from the introduction, is that the mechanism of working memory requires a “neuronal firing in brain regions other than the medial temporal lobe that is sustained” whilst other redundant information retained for working memory fades as information is discarded.

In my own research on memory and parts of the brain, much of what I have been exploring are referenced (E.g. temporal or parietal, dorsal) which I am slowly beginning to understand. Whether or not this information makes me a better teacher, the jury is still out, however, it is interesting.

Is it attention or working memory?

Throughout the paper, case studies  are provided as well as scans of neuroimaging activity. The authors write that “working memory of a given form engages a particular region of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)”. For example, when sequencing phonemes for the purpose of articulation, the Broca’s (front) area of the brain is dominant. The paper suggests the “posterior area maintains representations while the frontal area” is active.

The pre-frontal cortex is active across a wide variety of cognitive demands; specifically “as a store for working memory representations appears to be somewhat untenable.” However, the researchers write that the pre-frontal cortex areas are involved in “rehearsal or refreshing of posterior representations in order to keep them active for work in memory.”

Working Memory

Credit: Nee and D’Esposito (2018)

One key difference cited is that the difference between attention and working memory is that with attention, “the representations persist in the environment, and in the latter [working memory] the representations exist solely in the mind.”

Given the recent interest by the English teaching profession, ‘attention’ vs. ‘working memory’ is something we should distinguish; especially considering the increased use of ‘working memory’ language in government and Ofsted guidance.

Understanding working memory

This is a neuroscientific study of working memory – and much of it is above my head!

With a focus on looking more closely at what happens in the pre-frontal cortex area, scientists can start to observe what happens in this part of our brain under different circumstances. They conclude with, “it is unclear under what circumstances information is coded in one form or another.” They continue to discuss dynamic coding, synaptic and network processing and retention at a molecular level.

Whilst we have metaphors about ‘wardrobes’ and working memory diagrams with ‘funnels’ explain how working memory might work (for teachers), “few researchers have taken on the necessary bridging of multiple levels of analysis needed to understand working memory.”

If we consider the classroom, from early years to examination level, virtual schools to pupil referral units, depending on the information being taught and retained, “working memory can engage virtually any cortical area.”

I have read some of the research which suggests that information can be processed through short-term memory. Whilst this area deals with our capacity, rather than the manipulation of information, I am curious to unpick more about what is or isn’t true, and more importantly, seeking information to highlight how we learn and as a result, how we might teach better.

It’s a complex area, but we are moving forward.

Future work is needed to understand the working memory, including a [macro-level examination of the whole brain and network interactions and molecular approaches].


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