Monday, March 11, 2013

Improving Working Memory and Attention

Working memory is the brain function that allows us to hold information in memory long enough to manipulate or perform some function on it in order to solve a problem or come up with a response.  It is considered an "executive function", which is a set of cognitive abilities that allow us to plan, organize, self monitor, initiate and inhibit responses, and shift gears as needed.

We use our working memory everyday for all kinds of tasks.  Pearson's Cogmed website provides a handy chart (see below) of some of the ways we use working memory in all stages of development:

AgeWorking memory is crucial for…Indicators that a working memory needs exercise


  • Learning the alphabet
  • Focusing on short instructions such as “Come brush your teeth”
  • Remaining seated to complete independent activities, such as puzzles
  • Seems unwilling or unable to learn alphabet, numbers
  • Can’t focus long enough to grasp and follow instructions
  • Flits from one thing to another

Elementary school

  • Reading and understanding the content (reading comprehension)
  • Mental arithmetic
  • Interacting and responding appropriately in peer activities such as playing on the school ground
  • Reads (decodes) but does not understand or remember material read
  • Problems memorizing math facts
  • Difficulty participating in group activities (e.g. awaiting turn); makes friends but cannot keep them

Middle school

  • Doing homework independently
  • Planning and packing for an activity
  • Solving multi-step math problems, especially word problems
  • Participating in team sports
  • Does not begin or persist with homework without supervision
  • Packs but forgets items essential for activity
  • Reads the problem but can’t break it into understandable parts
  • Problems grasping rules of a game, functioning as a “team player”

High school

  • Getting a driver’s license – and driving safely
  • Understanding social cues, responding to demands of a social situation
  • Writing essays, reports
  • Problems with spatial awareness, reading and following traffic cues
  • Interrupts, talks excessively, doesn’t listen to others
  • Essays and reports are short, sloppy, and disorganized


  • Focusing on and following a conversation
  • Making and adhering to work plans, such as studying for an exam successfully
  • Participating in group activities in school and socially
  • Sustaining focus and interest throughout lectures
  • Changes topics suddenly, makes irrelevant comments
  • Procrastinates, then tries to “cram” the night before an exam
  • Doesn’t listen or participate during group activities
  • Falls asleep or “zones out” during lectures


  • Getting to work on time
  • Meeting deadlines at work
  • Prioritizing multiple activities
  • Handling conflicts within the family
  • Frequently late to work
  • Often underestimates time required for a task
  • Has problems breaking a project into manageable steps
  • Often loses temper with children and spouse


  • Actively participate in group discussions
  • Being able to perform what you are planning to do
  • Organizing your materials and activities
  • Managing important financial transactions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Distractability
  • Losing track of the topic in a conversation
  • Misplacing things like glasses, mobile phone, keys etc

As you can see, if an individual has problems with their working memory they may experience significant difficulties across a broad range of tasks and in a variety of situations.  A number of different conditions can be correlated with working memory problems such as:  attention deficits or learning disorders, brain injury, stroke, being over-committed, or even the natural effects of aging.

Fortunately, we are discovering that working memory can be improved.  One way of doing so is using a working memory training program such as Cogmed.  According to Pearson, "Cogmed Working Memory Training is an evidence-based training program developed by leading neuroscientists to improve attention in individuals with weak working memory.  Cogmed is backed by peer-reviewed, controlled research done at leading universities around the world and is proven to lead to significant, real life improvements in 80% of users."

If you are interested in learning more about Cogmed, please visit the Pearson Cogmed website or the YouTube Cogmed Video Channel.  My website provides additional information about ADHD, learning differences and other mental health concerns,

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