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It is hard to improve working memory

We want to remember things, right? It would be very inconvenient and annoying (and also frustrating) to never remember anything. Our whole lives would come to a halt. A big part of us remembering deals with our short-term memory, the limited things we can keep in mind at once. In particular, our working memory really may play a role in what gets transferred from short-term to long-term memory.

In working memory, we really get to think about what is in our minds. We can form new ideas. We can retain information. We can make meaning out of things. Working memory is quite important, and, without it, we wouldn’t be able to think.

Not only that, imagine without a working memory, we would never know who WE even are. Our identities would form, at least not with nearly as much complexity it does now. We couldn’t form new opinions, understand what we like and don’t like, or socialize in any meaningful way.

Working memory is so vital.

Given how important working memory is, we should probably figure out how to really make use of and improve our working memory capabilities.

Yet, it isn’t that easy.

We naturally already try to do this. And, according to research, we kind of do this poorly.

There are many potential techniques we can use to improve working memory in the moment; among the most common is a category of techniques called “rehearsal.” Rehearsal is any way we decide or automatically repeat information in order to retain it.

The research cited at the end of this article that I will be referencing does a review on 3 ways we might rehearse information: articulatory rehearsal, refreshing, and elaborative rehearsal.


Articulatory rehearsal is the most commonly cited variation which just means we are repeating the words in our head or out loud. If I asked you to remember this list, you would repeat it over and over until I ask you again to please tell me the items of that list: person, woman, man, camera, TV.

Person, woman, man, camera, TV

Person, woman, man, camera, TV

Person, woman, man, camera, TV

Does it work? Well, actually, no. It may work for some people, but on average, for adults, it doesn’t work any better than if you just spent more time with these words in general. There is nothing special about repeating the words that makes it stick in memory better.

Do I suggest not repeating words? No.

It probably IS helpful, just not as helpful as we think. AND, like I said, it does work for some people. In this case, for children, it seems to work. Children may benefit from the extra attention that they have to use to concentrate on the repetition of these words. For adults, we me already have enough attention, at least compared to children. I am not completely sold on that because there are many adults I know, that….well….whatever. Next technique.

Refreshing is more of an automatic process where in our minds, every now and again, our brain decides to go through the items of a list. If I give you list of person, woman, man, camera, TV and then a second list of human, female, male, picture, video, as I am telling you your next list, your mind is refreshing the first list. About 25% of people can consciously say they do this.

Does it work? No. Well, sort of. For the most recent items, you might be able to recall them a bit more quickly, but it DOES NOT help you remember all of the items. Again, time helps more than anything else.

The last technique that was reviewed was the elaborative rehearsal technique. This means we are trying to attach meaning or something else to what we have to remember in order to improve memory. If you have your favorite list you need to remember--person, woman, man, camera, TV—you may try to put these words into a sentence or attach these words to events in your own life.

Does it work? No. At least, it doesn’t improve working memory. It does, however, improve long-term memory, which is nice. That means, if you wanted to state the list right away, you may have trouble. But if I asked you tomorrow, you likely would be able to recall all the items.