Improve Your Working Memory: An Expert’s Guide

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Moonwalking With Einstein" by Joshua Foer. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How do you improve working memory? Is it possible to improve it? What exactly is working memory?

Working memory is what helps you complete tasks at hand, while long term memory is your stored memories. Since so many people struggle with a good working memory, learning how to improve working memory can help.

Read more about how to improve working memory below.

How to Improve Working Memory: The Basics

Science doesn’t fully understand how memory works yet, but it does know that our brains are a network of neurons, and an individual memory is a group of connections between neurons.  Understanding memory can help you improve working memory. One of these types of memory is the short term working memory.

Additionally, memories aren’t stored in any linear way; they’re stored in a web of associations. For example, thinking of the word “baker” would probably also make you think about bread, the smell of yeast, your favorite bakery, and so on. 

To remember something consciously, we need a cue. For example, if you’re trying to remember what your friend’s car looks like, you might have to think more generally about your friend or about cars in order to “search” the web of associations that will eventually lead you to the memory of your friend’s car.

There are several different types of memories:

  • Internal. Internal memories include the information you keep inside your heads.
  • External. External memories include the information you keep outside your heads, such as what you write down on Post-it notes or take pictures of.
  • Working. The working memory, or short term working memory. is in charge of whatever you’re currently focusing on. It’s a filter between your perception and your long term memory. It can only hold about five to nine different things at once.
  • Long-term. The long-term memory stores things you need to remember for longer than a few moments.
  • Declarative. Declarative memories are individual conscious memories. There are two types of declarative memories:
    • Episodic memories are memories of experiences. They have a place and time attached to them. For example, the time you went surfing in Hawaii is an episodic memory.
    • Semantic memories are memories of concepts and facts. For example, the fact that surfing is a water sport in which you stand on a board is a semantic memory.
  • Nondeclarative. Nondeclarative memories are unconscious memories such as motor skills and habits. For example, riding a bike.

Working vs. Long-Term Memory

The brain uses at least two different systems to store memories:

  • Working memory. Your working memory keeps track of whatever’s currently the focus of your consciousness. It acts as a filter between your experiences of the world and your memory of it. Only if the brain deems something relevant will it be stored more permanently. Your working memory can only hold on to five to nine different things at once.
    • Think of your working memory like the CPU of your computer. It stores whatever your computer is working on at the moment, and only for as long as you need it.
    • For example, if there’s a pigeon on the sidewalk, you only need to remember its existence long enough to walk around it.
  • Long-term memory. The long-term memory stores things you need to remember for longer than a few moments.
    • Think of your long-term memory like the hard drive of your computer. It stores things for a much longer period of time, up to a lifetime.
    • For example, your birthday is something you’re going to need to remember every year, so it’s stored in long-term memory.

Scientists think that sleep is important for consolidating our memories. For example, in experiments with rats, scientists look at rats’ brains while they’re awake learning to run a maze and then while they’re asleep. Asleep, their neurons are firing in the same patterns they did while learning the maze. Dreams could be part of the process of creating long-term memories.

Now that you understand short term working memory, the next section offers a way to improve working memory

Chunking

Your short term working memory can only hold five to nine pieces of information at once, so if you need to remember something like a 16-digit credit card number, it’s a tall order. Chunking is a method of breaking and combining individual things into meaningful groups so that you have fewer things to remember, and helps you improve working memory.

For example, if you had to remember the letters ONCEUPONATIME, that’s 13 individual letters, more than your working memory can handle. However, if you group those letters into four words, ONCE UPON A TIME, then you only have to remember four things instead of 13.

Learning how to improve working memory takes practice and patience. Your working memory can help you perform tasks more efficiently, and hopefully decrease your stress level.

Improve Your Working Memory: An Expert’s Guide

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Moonwalking With Einstein summary:

  • The memory techniques that took the author from novice to US memory champion in one year
  • The 6 key types of memory we use everyday
  • Why memory isn't just genetic, and how you can improve your memory with the right techniques

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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