How The Brain Keeps Track of What We're Doing -- MEDICA - World Forum for Medicine
Photo: Image of a human brain in the head
The “workspace” in the brain allows
us to do something while other func-
tions operate in the background or
to apply ourselves to a single task
involving more than one function;
© / James Steidl

Most psychologists explain working memory with a “controlled attention” model: one flexible system that directs the brain’s focus to stimuli and tasks that are important and suppressing the rest. The capacity of working memory, they say, is limited by our ability to attend to only one thing at a time.

“We have a range of different capacities, each with its own function, and they operate at the same time” when we perform a task or think about something, says neuroscientist Robert H. Logie. Within this “multiple-component framework,” working memory capacity is “the sum of the capacities of all these different functions.”

This “workspace” in the brain, as Logie calls it, allows us to do something while other functions operate in the background or to apply ourselves to a single task involving more than one function. In reading, for instance, we both see words and process meaning. The “sum” of the capacities isn’t a gross measure, though, because we often tax one function more than another. In reading, processing has its shoulder to the grindstone, while vision takes it easy.

In addition to the attentional model of working memory, Logie critiques the experimental methods shaped by it. Example: Studies measuring capacity ask participants to read a sentence (process) and remember the sentence’s last word (memory), then read several sentences and recall all the final words in order. How well a person does can predict performance on other tasks or exams. But the experiment, which assumes one big resource pouring into different tasks until it’s used up, tests only one function, memory for words.

If you want to understand not just the capacity but the structure of working memory—which Logie considers a more fruitful avenue of research—there’s a better experimental methodology: cognitive neuroscience. “Imaging data demonstrate that if you ask people to do one sort of task, you get one [brain] pattern, and if you ask them to do another, you get another pattern.” Make the same task harder—say, remember word lists faster—and “you see increased activation in the same area.” Complicate it—add words to the sequence, and thus processing along with recall—and different networks fire.; Source: Association for Psychological Science