Working memory: what is it about?

Working memory, also known as "operative memory", allows us to access information temporarily to perform a certain task.

Last update: September 13, 2021

Memory is involved in three basic processes: information encoding, storage, and retrieval or recall for use. However, it is carried out by these processes in a different way. Thus we have working memory, also known as operating memory.

Working memory is that which allows us to access information temporarily to perform a certain task, participating in more complex cognitive functions. It involves reasoning and planning.

Working memory functions

The working memory fulfills different functions:

  • It serves to articulate the information present together with other information stored in the long-term memory. For example, if our boss asks us to perform a certain task, we can understand the instruction, at the same time we remember the results of the report that he requests. Or, if a neighbor tells us about a common acquaintance, we can understand the story and connect it with the previous information we have about that person.
  • It allows handling information of different types simultaneously. For example, if we are cooking and the phone rings, we are able to converse with the caller and remember to put out the fire before the water boils.
  • Has an active role in the manipulation and management of information, so that it is oriented to the resolution of tasks or the fulfillment of objectives.
  • Working memory too is involved in learning processes and understanding language.

This memory should not be confused with short-term memory, which is more focused on the temporal. That is, in the availability of the data for a limited period of time.

There is no single type of memory. We access them according to the circumstances and what we need to do.


Working memory model, according to Baddeley

According to Baddeley (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974), working memory is complex, since it simultaneously executes three different processes that are carried out with the participation of various components:

  • Under the control and supervision of the central executive component.
  • With the management of the sounds of the «phonological circuit».
  • The processing of mental images of the visuospatial scheme.


How does working memory operate?

To explain how working memory works, Baddeley proposed to identify the components involved in information processing. Thus, your proposal includes the following.

Central executive system

Your role is very important, since is in charge of the execution and control of the necessary procedures so that a certain objective is fulfilled. To do this, it uses the other components mentioned, also known as warehouses.

Its function is to supervise and coordinate these stores, as well as to manage attention and concentration resources. Discriminate those elements or distracting stimuli from the main task.

Phonological circuit

The phonological circuit is a support in the management of the information of words and sounds. It also uses two other subsystems: the phonological store, which allows information to be retained for a short interval, and the repetition reinforcement system, which allows information to be made available from repetition.

We will be able to remember how we got to a place, if we repeat the instructions.

The phonological circuit has a limited capacity, since the more numerous the stimuli to remember, the more difficult it will be to retain them.

Viso-special scheme

As its name implies, the visuospatial schema deals with temporarily preserve visuospatial information and mental image processing. In this way, it is possible to know how the shape and appearance of objects is useful in spatial orientation and geographic knowledge.

Buffer episodic

It is a fourth component, which was included in a later reformulation. The buffer episodic has the function of serve as a link between information from different systems and long-term memory.

Making connections between what is current and what we have been through is a basis for completing tasks.

Take care of our memory

Although the study and use of memory is usually thought of in terms of components or functions (short and long term, episodic, working, sensory), there is only one memory. It is very important for our daily activities and for history in general. Through it we remember our most precious moments, but also how to ride a bicycle.

Therefore, their care and stimulation is vital from an early age. Although also as time passes and ages.

Memory can be trained through different activities, which allow different functions to be activated. From preparing a recipe, singing a song from a long time ago, to taking care of our diet. They are all healthy habits that allow us to optimize it.