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The Joy of Executive Functions… 3/9: I can’t remember

“I can’t remember” – Working memory

Do you know anyone like this: – You tell them to do 3 things. They start the first, maybe finish it, and then don’t remember to do the second or third thing you asked? Or someone who goes to the shops for milk, but comes back with 5 items, none of which are milk? Or the person who genuinely intends to do something you asked, but you have to remind them to the point of nagging before it might get done? All these instances can be indicators of working memory difficulties.

Working memory occurs as we take in information, work to keep it “front of mind”, and use the information for some purpose. Information in working memory is usually stored for a very short time, usually between a few seconds to about a minute while it is used and acted upon. Given that information is only in the working memory for such a short period, it makes sense that there is a limited storage space in working memory. Working memory capacity is usually limited to about 6 to 8 thoughts in those few seconds – the length of a telephone number or a license plate. During that time the brain filters information deciding what is not worthy of saving, just like using the delete button on your phone or emptying the recycle bin on your computer. Some information also gets transferred to long- term memory. As a visual for comparison, if one imagines a water pitcher as the amount of  working memory a ‘ neuro-typical’ person has, then a water glass may be the amount of working memory a person with executive deficits may have.

It is believed a hierarchy exists within the levels of short-term working memory. On the lowest level is Sensory Memory which is held very briefly for a few seconds and appears to be a type of awareness to help keep our bodies regulated. For instance, if our throat is dry, we may tell ourselves to drink a sip of water.  The next level of memory is called Immediate Memory. It’s role is to temporarily hold information retained which lasts for about 30 seconds to a few minutes, like the instructions of a test. Following up is Rehearsal Memory. This type of memory is thought to last for hours and is activated by rehearsing or repeating a series of statements or actions which will enhance and lengthen the ability to save the information and retrieve it later. For instance, studying for a test and rehearsing the content. Last in the hierarchy is Long Short-Term Memory. It lasts from an hour to up to approximately two days. It is an intermediate step from short-term to long- term permanent memory.  Using phrases or sayings like Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF) for piano lessons, helps preserve the memory trace even longer.

Interestingly, we forget 90% of what is learned in the classroom within the first 30 days, and we lose the majority of it within the first few hours after the class is over. In learning we need to foster a student’s memory recall by repeating important points within 30 seconds after they were given and then again within the next hour. This solidifies them in memory and helps recall. At home, repeating instructions in a calm voice 7 to 10 seconds after you have given it the first time, and having your child rehearse instructions or steps in a process – particularly to music, can help working memory.