For Better Working Memory—Consider a Pay Raise

Working memory is a top mental process needed in daily life. As one of the most extensively studied areas of cognition, we now know it impacts all areas of thinking and learning. That’s some pretty heavy lifting! In this article, we will look at this important type of memory and how you can improve the functioning of your working memory.

What is working memory?

Working memory can be defined as “short-term memory applied to cognitive tasks, as a multi-component system that holds and manipulates information in short-term memory, and as the use of attention to manage short-term memory. (1)”

At its core, working memory has the job of being a work space to plan and carry out behavior. As seen in the definition above, it is a system with multiple components that combine in various ways and work together.

Consider this analogy

Working memory can be compared to creating a painting. There are a number of tools needed, such as a brush, paint, and a canvas. In memory, these tools are: holding information, attending to information, and manipulating information.

Next comes using the tools to create. In a painting this is the actual creating of the painting—of putting paint to canvas; and in memory, this is the actual creating of a long-term memory.

At the end of the process, depending on the quality of the tools and the innate capabilities of the artist, a painting may be excellent or poor or anywhere in between. With memory, at the end, again depending on the quality of the tools and the innate capabilities of the individual’s cognitive power, the long-term memory may be excellent or poor or anywhere in between.

So where does all this happen?

Cognitive neuroscientists have found through brain imaging that the task at hand determines which areas in the brain are needed and get activated. For example, for visual information, the primary visual cortex, located deep in the back of the brain, is needed for representing color and determining where objects are oriented in space.  For attention, the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind the forehead, is where the magic happens. 

Key, too, is the connectivity between these activated areas of the brain, known as ‘synchronization of activity among distributed brain regions’2 . One method used to measure this is brain wave activity. Our brains have a number of different and distinct brain wave activity patterns that become dominant depending on the working memory task at hand.

Additionally, we must consider neurotransmitters—these are the chemical messengers that carry the signals between brain cells. In particular is dopamine, which signals that an event is important, as well as involved in feelings of reward and pleasure (2,3). This gives us the motivation to stick with a task that relies on working memory.

What about emotions?

While we have looked at the brain-based mechanisms, working memory is not just about the cognitive. Our working memory is also impacted by our emotions, referred to as ‘affective’. You can see this connection with the nature of dopamine being related to reward and pleasure.  

In a meta-analyses (which is reanalyzing data across a large number of individual studies), researchers have found that working memory is enhanced when the stimuli (condition or event that triggers a reaction) is positive, compared to when the stimuli is negative(4) .

So in other words, when a task is fun and pleasant, even though it may be challenging, our working memory is more efficient and effective than when we are faced with a task that is unpleasant. When you have trouble “remembering” something, a likely contributing factor is that you simply don’t want to be doing whatever that something is!

What contributes to ‘poor’ working memory and how can you stem the tide?


When trying to attend to information that we need to mentally manipulate, say figuring out how much an item will cost after deducting a percentage, we are actively using our working memory. If we get interrupted by someone talking to us—we often say things like, “I lost my train of thought.” and “I forgot where I was.” In fact, you have just experienced your working memory failing a bit(5).


  • Don’t feel guilty or as though you’re slacking off when you give your full attention and effort to the task at hand. In fact, tell people that the research is abundantly clear that multi-tasking hurts performance.
  • If you are in a situation where you cannot control being interrupted, account for this. As you are engaging in a task that relies on working memory, snap a photo or write yourself a note.


When we are feeling overly anxious, perhaps because the stakes are very high that we learn something, these emotions can interfere with our ability to focus6. Our minds may start up ‘mental chatter’, like “What if I forget?” “What if I can’t do this?” In a way, this is a type of interference as well. Do keep in mind though that a little bit of anxiety is actually good for working memory, because in essence it’s saying “Hey, this is important!”


  • Listen to your internal dialogue. If you start hearing yourself articulating too much anxiety, acknowledge it. Then call on your more objective self to take over.
  • Many times we feel anxiety because we don’t have enough information or we don’t have a plan. Take a little time and get what you need in these areas. It will reduce anxiety and help your working memory immensely.

Low physical well-being

Our brains are sensitive to the well-being of our bodies (7,8,9). A poor diet, lack of exercise, and not enough sleep all have a negative impact on the ability of the brain to function at an optimal level. As we have seen, working memory requires a heavy cognitive load—and it simply cannot do as good a job without the resources that are generated from good physical well-being.


  • Eat a diet with unsaturated fats, antioxidant-rich foods, and folates.
  • Get the recommended 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Engage in moderate exercise, particular aerobic, half an hour most days of the week.
  • Participate in activities that reduce stress for you as an individual—this could be a massage, yoga, watching a funny movie, or spending time with family and friends.

Closing Thoughts

There is mounting evidence that working memory can be ‘trained’. While an enormous amount of research on plasticity, which is the potential for the cognitive abilities and brain activity to be modified, has been conducted in the early developmental years; many researchers have more recently turned their attention to studying plasticity in adults. In particular, to adults who are getting older.

The findings are exciting because it has been found that plasticity of the brain, of which working memory is included, is considerable up to very old age(10).

And as you can see, you can do many things to give your working memory a “pay raise”!

Additional Resources





1. Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory?Progress in Brain Research169, 323-338. 

2. D'esposito, M., & Postle, B. R. (2015). The cognitive neuroscience of working memoryAnnual Review of Psychology66, 115-142.

3. Surmeier, D. J. (2007). Dopamine and working memory mechanisms in prefrontal cortexThe Journal of Physiology581(3), 885-885.

4. Schweizer, S., Satpute, A. B., Atzil, S., Field, A., Hitchcock, C., Black, M., ... & Dalgleish, T. (2018). The behavioral and neural effects of affective information on working memory performance: A pair of meta-analytic reviews. The Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science.

5. Foroughi, C. K., Malihi, P., & Boehm-Davis, D. A. (2016). Working memory capacity and errors following interruptions. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 410-414.

6. Moran, T. P. (2016). Anxiety and working memory capacity: A meta-analysis and narrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 142(8), 831.

7. Spencer, S. J., Korosi, A., Layé, S., Shukitt-Hale, B., & Barrientos, R. M. (2017). Food for thought: How nutrition impacts cognition and emotion. npj Science of Food, 1(1), 7.

8. Frenda, S. J., & Fenn, K. M. (2016). Sleep less, think worse: The effect of sleep deprivation on working memory. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 463-469.

9. Rathore, A., & Lom, B. (2017). The effects of chronic and acute physical activity on working memory performance in healthy participants: A systematic review with meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Systematic Reviews, 6(1), 124.

10. Karbach, J., & Verhaeghen, P. (2014). Making working memory work: A meta-analysis of executive-control and working memory training in older adultsPsychological Science25(11), 2027-2037.


About the Author:

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.