Editorial Note: For the next two weeks, I want to discuss the distinction between short-term memory and working memory. Once we've sorted out the differences, then we will dive into the connection between working memory and intelligence. First, let's talk about how to model what's going through your mind...right now.
Short-term vs. Long-term Memory
In addition to behavioral evidence, there is also neuro-scientific evidence for the two memory systems. Using a methodology called a double-dissociation, neuroscientists demonstrated that some patients have damage to their long-term memory, but their short-term memory works just fine. The double-dissociation was established when they also found patients with the opposite problem. Namely, patients' long-term memory was intact; however, they had difficulty remembering information for a short period of time.
Working Memory & The Three Sub-componentsAlthough short- versus long-term memory was successful in explaining some of the empirical findings, it became clear that it couldn't explain all of the behavioral results. Here is an example. Consider the following list of words: pit, day, cow, pen, rig. According to the research on the limitations of short-term memory, these five items should fit comfortably in short-term memory. But consider a different list of words: man, cap, can, map, mad. Does it seem harder to remember these words? According to the model of short-term memory, this list should be neither easier nor harder than the previous list of words because, again, there are only five items. How do we reconcile these observations?
Because the concept of "short-term memory" was unable to explain these findings, the concept of a temporary memory buffer had to be extended. To do so, a cognitive scientist named Alan Baddeley proposed a revision to short-term memory that he called working memory [1, 2]. It is similar to short-term memory in the sense that it is a temporary storage facility, but it had to be elaborated to help explain why phonetically similar words, such as cap/map and man/mad were easily to confuse when trying to remember them. The new model of memory included three distinct sub-components: the central executive, the phonological loop, and the visuo-spatial sketch-pad. To see how these components interact, Baddeley provided the following diagram (see Fig. 1).
|Figure 1. A schematic representation of the working memory components.|
The first component is called the central executive. It is responsible for focusing your attention on relevant information and to switch attentional focus when needed. In other words, it is the central executive's job to coordinate the flow of information to and from the subsystems to accomplish a task. An example of coordinating information occurs when you are attempting to navigate with a map. You have to hold spatial information from the map in mind while looking up at the real world. The central executive has to synthesize the spatial information from the map with the verbal information located on the street signs.
Phonological LoopThe next component is the articulatory or phonological loop. The best way to visualize the phonological loop is to imagine an extremely short cassette tape. When I say "extremely short," I mean it only can hold about two seconds of audio or phonological information. It's also called an "articulatory" mechanism is because it replays the audio over and over. This makes intuitive sense because when people have a list of numbers or words they have to remember for a short period of time, they repeat it to themselves over and over. The purpose of rehearsing the list is to hold that information until it can be recalled. After which time, it can be dumped from the phonological loop.
Visuo-Spatial SketchpadFinally, the visuo-spatial sketch-pad is meant to track and momentarily retain spatial information. For example, when driving on the highway, it is necessary to keep track of the arrangement of cars behind you so that you don't unintentionally cut someone off when changing lanes. A quick glance in your rearview mirror quickly updates the spatial information found in the visuo-spatial sketch-pad.
"Are you sure we're not getting some interference?"
Suppose we play a game similar to the old electronic game Simon. We will play two rounds. In the first round, just play as usual. For the second round, however, you have to repeat the word the. How did you do? If you're like most people, repeating the doesn't really interfere with your ability to play the game because the information is held in a spatial buffer.
However, suppose I ask you to memorize the following list of words, but after you read through the list, you have to repeat the.
That concludes Part 1 of our discussion of working memory. Check back next week for the link between working memory and intelligence, plus the connection to education!Share and Enjoy!
For More Information Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working memory. The psychology of learning and motivation, 8, 47-89.
 Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(11), 417-423.
 There have been further refinements to the model of working memory. For example, Baddeley proposed that an additional set of components are needed to bind episodic information held in long-term memory to the contents of working memory. Here is a schematic of those components (see Fig. 2).
|Figure 2. A further elaboration of the working memory model.|
Baddeley, A. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews Neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.