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What is working memory?

little boy holding a book over his head

Key points:

  1. Working memory is important for short-term mental tasks and allows us to hold information in our minds.
  2. The exact areas of the brain that are involved in working memory are complex and can vary depending on the characteristics of the task at hand.
  3. Working memory is closely related to a person’s attention skills.
  4. Children’s advancements in working memory during the first years of life will allow them to remember and complete tasks that involve multiple steps, and parents can engage their children in games that involve short-term tasks to further develop their working memory.

Working memory, as the name suggests, refers to the cognitive skill that allows us to hold information in our minds during the time that it takes us to work on a mental task. Because of it, we are capable of having the information we need close at hand when we put our brain to work on something in the short-term.

As you can imagine, our working memory is essential for even the most simple and basic tasks, because without it we would lose track of what we’re doing right in the middle of it. Driving, answering a text message, or cooking rice would be impossible if not for our brain’s working memory.


Scientists have had a hard time pinpointing the exact areas of the brain where the working memory might be located. However, they know it involves many parts of the prefrontal cortex, or the part of your brain that’s behind your forehead. Part of the complications researchers encounter when studying working memory is its complexity. Depending on the characteristic of the task at hand, your brain calls on different areas of the brain to help retain the information, might it be visual, auditory, sensory, etc.

Amongst others, neuroscientist Anne Berry, from the Jagust Lab at Berkeley University, has suggested in her papers that working memory is closely related to a specific person’s attention skills. This link is so intuitive that, for practical reasons, most psychologists think of working memory and attention as a package.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, your child’s impressive progress in cognition during the first years of life, including advancements in working memory, will allow them to remember and complete tasks that include multiple steps when they are around 3-years of age. This will also mean that around this age you can now engage your child in games that involve short-term tasks: drawing, having them intervene and participate when reading a story together, imagining more complex games of pretend play, etc.

You can think of your child’s working memory as a temporary Post-it note on their brain. It allows them to keep something in mind and afterwards decide whether or not this information is important enough to be passed into the long-term memory shelves.

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