Home > Attention, Memory > Working Memory and Individual Differences: Attention Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!

Working Memory and Individual Differences: Attention Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!

Have you ever tried to keep up with your day by switching between all the things you have to do? Of course you have. Multi-tasking and even just trying to focus our attention on one out of the million stimuli in the modern world are just part of everyone’s lives. The system that makes this possible is called working memory. Working memory is what takes in all the stimuli of the environment, organizes it, attends to it, and decides whether to rehearse or try to remember the information or whether it simply should be thrown away and forgotten.

Working memory is made up of 4 main parts. First off there are the two “slave systems.” These are the visuo-spatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. These are basic holding areas for incoming stimuli, the visuo-spatial sketchpad holds visual information such as maps, while the phonological loop deals with stimuli such as read words, numbers, or auditory stimuli. These segments simply take in the information, it is up to the other systems to choose what happens to that raw input. The central executive is the main decision hub of working memory, the place where a person decides what to attend to and rehearse into long term memory and what to forget. This balances the stimuli coming in to the slave systems and prioritizes everything into a sensible, useable form (Baddeley, 1974). The final part of the working memory model is the episodic buffer, the middleman between working memory and long term memory. It is what helps to make connections between the schemas we already have and what we are experiencing, allowing for pattern recognition and stronger encoding of information (Baddeley, 2000). In long term memory topics are connected together, either strongly or weakly, depending upon relatedness and number of connections. When a topic is brought up, say cows, all of the topics connected to cows get automatic activation, steak, spots, milk, grass, farm, and others. Then everything connected to those gets activated off of that, continuing and weakening in activation as they go out. When a stimuli comes in, like seeing a cow, those things will be activated, and it is the episodic buffers job to help build an even stronger connection between all that activated stuff and the cow you are seeing right now.

People with better working memory show better general memory and reading comprehension when compared to others (Just, 1992). Those with higher working memory are also markedly better at multitasking. Finally, an interesting effect of difference in working memory is that those with better working memory learn much faster than those without. One 1992 Engle et al. experiment tested the effects of different learning environments on those with varying working memory. The participants had to learn words/sentences at different rates of presentation. When the experimenter decided the rate of presentation of stimuli, higher working memory individuals performed much better at learning the stimuli. On the other hand, when the participant decided the rate of presentation, and thus could take all the time they needed to learn the stimuli, there was no significant difference in performance (Engle, 1992). This implies that those with higher working memory learn faster and easier, but it is not the only deciding factor of performance. When deciding for themselves how much time is needed to learn something the low working memory individuals were able to completely compensate for this immediate deficit and show the same results.







Engle, R. W. Individual differences in working memory and comprehension: A test of four

              hypotheses. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18(5) (1992).

Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A capacity theory of comprehension: Individual differences in

              working memory. Psychological Review, 99(1) (1992).

Baddeley, A.D. The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory?. Department of

Experimental Psychology. 4(11) (2000).

Baddeley, A.D. and Hitch, G.J. (1974) Working memory. In The Psychology of Learning and

              Motivation (Bower, G.A., ed.), pp. 47–89, Academic Press.

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  1. March 20th, 2014 at 12:59 | #1

    Overall, the blog post was informative and concise. There are some things that could have been better and other things that were done well.

    First, the good. Great introduction. It hooked my interest and was simple to read. Your blog post was also very concise, but not at the expense of explanation. It’s very difficult to accomplish this when discussing something as technical as memory. You also made good use of references and expatiating on data from research. Good job!

    Now, the not so good. As I said, its difficult to be concise with technical subject matter. It’s even more difficult to speak about it in non-jargony terms. The flow and style you had in the first paragraph was perfect. I can tell you tried to carry it into the second paragraph, but it didn’t work very well. The diction was still very technical and I, as the reader, felt like I was reading a textbook instead of someone’s simplified interpretation of the subject matter. It’s tough. For future reference, try breaking your major points into separate, but short paragraphs.

    I understand you probably only had about three paragraphs to discuss your findings, but there is nothing wrong with short 3 or four sentence paragraphs so long as they don’t interrupt the flow of your discussion. One paragraph could’ve been devoted to the “slave systems.” This would’ve offered you more flexibility to offer more explanation as to what the phonological look and the visa-spatial sketchpads are, and more to the point, why they’re called “slave systems.”

    Also integrating real life examples to explain your subject matter would have gone a long way. For example, you described the central executive segment of memory as “the main decision hub of working memory, the place where a person decides what to attend to and rehearse into long term memory and what to forget.” This is what I meant by textbook. Make it more tangible. Maybe add something to the effect of, “You can think of this component like a waiting room at the doctor’s office. Information comes in and sits and waits for it’s name to be called to go into the next room, long term memory.”

    My final point of critique regards your concluding paragraph where you discuss the applications of working memory. Like I said before, you did a good job extrapolating data from research, but it would’ve been more helpful and instructive to the reader if you discussed real-world applications. So working memory affects my ability to multi-task? Immediately, as a reader, I want to know how I can improve my working memory. What are the consequences of this in the work place, and on productivity? As much as I love theory, it goes even better with application, like peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

    I hope you find my comments useful. And really, it was well written. Good job.

  2. March 20th, 2014 at 19:03 | #2

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I am currently learning about working memory in my cognitive psych class and I found reading your explanations of the phonological loop and visuo-spatial sketchpad to really help me understand these topics.

    Your blog was very well written and organized. It is clear and concise. Your introduction really brought me in as a reader and made me want to learn more. I am constantly trying to multitask so I thought that was a great example to draw the reader in. In you next paragraph, You then explained working memory. You did a good job breaking down working memory into 4 parts that were easily differentiated. However, I think you could have chosen an example in the intro that you could have used to follow a pathway through working memory. How does that example change from a stimulus being stored in the “slave systems” into a long term working memory. I think this would have made me really understand how working memory works and made your blog post a little easier for the common reader to follow. I did like your last paragraph it made me think about the importance of working memory and I liked how you left the experiment aka the science for the end of the blog post. The conclusion could have been stronger. Maybe wrap up the article by bringing it back to the introduction about multitasking and attention and how it relates to attention.

    In all I really enjoyed your piece. It was informative and interesting to read.

  3. April 26th, 2014 at 14:22 | #3

    I really enjoyed reading your piece. It was a really well written overview of the working memory and its different parts. It gave pretty good explanations for what each part of the working memory does though I think some parts were skimmed over a little too quickly such as the part about that visuo-spacial sketchpad and the phonological loop. The explanation that the visuo-spacial sketchpad was for things such as maps did not clearly explain what that meant. It would have been better to say that it is for topics that can not be explained well with words, things that are more about what it seen and then say that an example of this would be maps.
    Though I did find this an informative article I do think it could have been improved if you had given maybe some talk of how a person could improve their working memory if they have a poor working memory. Why is it so much better to have a strong working memory? Also the importance of the working memory in multi-tasking was not completely clear. I would have liked to hear more about how working memory allows a person to multi-task more efficiently, though multi-tasking isn’t actually possible, it is more about switching tasks very quickly.
    Overall this was an informative article, I just think some additional information to extend upon the importance of working memory would have improved it.

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