There are multiple memory systems in the brain. Each has its own organization and structure as well as unique role in our adaptively managing the world about us. I most often discuss short-term and long-term memory as these are so critical for our understanding of senior moments as well as common memory disorders. Short-term memory is the systems that allow new learning and is like the save command in a computer. Long-term memory is autobiographical information, knowledge, habits, sense of self and is like the hard drive of a computer.
Working memory is the memory system that manages the complex inputs we are constantly bombarded with from within (thoughts, feelings) and without. It consists of awareness, near awareness, and rapid decision-making. It is constantly juggling multiple inputs and deciding what to attend to, what to process further, and what to ignore. It is the desktop on a computer, it is the processor on the computer, and it is your active involvement with deciding what to do with all of the possible information and tasks available to you on a computer.
Working memory is a limited capacity system. It is part like the sport light of attention, constantly screening out distraction and focusing on what is import in the moment and in the near future. It allows us to follow conversation. It allows us to hold a phone number long enough to dial it. It allows us to know what we have to do at 3:00. It’s the system that allows us to do mental arithmetic.
Working memory switches from one task to another rapidly and slows more with each demand placed on it. We cannot do two things as quickly as one. Furthermore, as with most skills it slows and becomes less efficient as we age. We are able to juggle fewer things less efficiently, which adds to senior moments.
Hence it becomes essential as we age to actively optimize working memory by spending our cognitive resources and energy more wisely, another manifestation of the One Minute Rule. Here are some suggestions that will help:
1. Reduce and manage stress. Being distressed and overwhelmed takes resources away from working memory. Practice relaxation as a skill, increase mindfulness.
2. Stay fit. A conditioned body optimizes brain function.
3. Become an “expert.” The more we practice a skill or a talent, the more elaborate the brain circuitry underlying the skill, the greater the associations, and the more automatic the execution and the less we need to use working memory. This applies to learning athletic skills, creating knowledge, doing crossword puzzles, playing Bridge, doing art, as well as playing a musical instrument.
4. Get enough rest. Working memory slows when we are tired. Do cognitively demanding work when you are alert and rested.
5. Realize that many drugs (e.g., alcohol) and medications (benzodiazepines, pain medications) compromise working memory.
6. Limit interference (turn off the ringer on the phone) and unnecessary multitasking as much as possible.