working memory vs. short-term memory

Understand and improve your working and short-term memory

May 23, 2023
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Memory is a crucial component of cognitive function, affecting daily life in numerous ways—from helping you remember to brush your teeth every morning to assisting your recollection of past conversations to fuel new ones. However, not all memory is created equal. 

Here are the four main types of memory:

  1. Short-term memory 
  2. Working memory 
  3. Long-term memory
  4. Sensory memory

The first two have some similarities and overlap, but divergences do exist. So read on to learn more about the differences between short-term memory and working memory. 

Understanding short-term memory

Short-term memory is a type of memory that stores information for a brief period of time, typically around 20-30 seconds. Everything past ~30 seconds becomes classified as a long-term memory.

Short-term memory is primarily concerned with brief information storage, holding onto things you need to know for immediate tasks, such as remembering a phone number or a new name, or remembering the beginning of this sentence by the time you get to the end. 

Short-term memory also has a limited capacity. That means it can only hold around 7 chunks of information at a time. This capacity can vary depending on the type of information being held. For example, the capacity for numbers is typically lower than the capacity for words. Factors such as phonological similarity, or similar-sounding words, can also affect short-term memory capacity. When all the items in a chunk of information sound similar, that information becomes harder to recall.

If it's helpful, you can think of your short-term memory as a desk with about 7 drawers, and each drawer can only hold one piece of information at a time, and only for about 30 seconds total.

Understanding working memory

Working memory is also a type of memory that stores information for a short period of time. In fact, it is often used interchangeably with the term "short-term memory," but there are some key differences between the two. 

Unlike short-term memory, working memory allows for the manipulation of information while it's briefly being stored. In other words, your working memory not only helps you remember things for about 30 seconds, but it can also help you work with that information within that timeframe. 

So, it's your short-term memory that allows you to recall a set of numbers, but it's your working memory that allows you to add, subtract, or rearrange those numbers. That’s why working memory is often referred to as the "workbench" of the brain. 

Like short-term memory, working memory also has a limited capacity, and the number of items it can store and manipulate is also affected by the type of information being stored and the presence of phonological similarities. But despite its limitations, working memory is a crucial component of cognitive function and is essential for problem-solving, decision-making, and multitasking. It allows you to pay attention to important information, manipulate that information, and use it to complete immediate tasks in real-time.

If you're still unsure about the differences between short-term memory and working memory, check out this quick video:

The relationship between working memory and long-term memory

Now that you understand short-term memory vs. working memory, you might also be wondering about long-term memory. 

Long-term memory is responsible for the storage of information over a longer period of time, ranging from minutes to hours to years, and there is no limit to how much information your long-term memory can hold.

Working memory and long-term memory work together to support cognitive function, and working memory is essential for the formation and retrieval of long-term memories. When you encounter new information, your working memory allows you to hold onto that information long enough for it to be transferred to your long-term memory. 

Similarly, when you retrieve information from your long-term memory, your working memory allows you to hold onto that information long enough to use it in real time. In other words, anytime you’re reminiscing about childhood memories with a family member or recalling a past experience with a friend, your working memory and long-term memory are working hand-in-hand. 

Working memory and short-term memory in daily life

Working memory and short-term memory have numerous practical applications in daily life. In academic and professional settings, working memory is essential for tasks such as problem-solving, decision-making, and multitasking, while short-term memory is important for tasks such as remembering names, phone numbers, and other pieces of information that are needed on the fly.

Working memory and short-term memory also play a role in your personal interests. Learning a new language, developing a new skill, or pursuing personal growth and development all require the use of working memory and short-term memory.

So, how can you improve them?

How to improve your working memory and short-term memory

One of the most effective strategies for avoiding memory deficits and improving your working memory and short-term memory is brain training exercises, such as dual n-back, memory matrix games, or brain training games. These exercises are designed to improve your working memory capacity and your ability to manipulate information.

In addition to brain training exercises, other strategies you can use to enhance your cognitive function, including working memory and short-term memory, include regular exercise, adequate sleep, and even mindfulness meditation with resources like the Balance app.

Staying motivated and consistent with brain training and cognitive enhancement strategies can greatly contribute to their effectiveness. So here are some tips to help you maintain your motivation and consistency:

  • Set clear and realistic goals that are specific and measurable. Break down your goals into smaller milestones to track your progress and celebrate achievements along the way.
  • Establish a routine. Dedicating time for brain training each day can help you make it a regular part of your schedule. 
  • Make the process enjoyable by incorporating variety. Explore different exercises, apps, or activities that challenge and engage your brain in different ways. Find what works best for you and make it a fun experience. 
  • Seek support from others. Join a study group or find a training partner to provide accountability and encouragement. 
  • Reward yourself for your efforts. Treat yourself to something you enjoy after completing a training session or reaching a significant milestone. 

By following these tips, you can stay motivated and consistent with your brain training routine, and make the most out of your quest to improve your working memory and short-term memory.

Improve your working memory and short-term memory today

Now that you know the similarities and differences between working memory and short-term memory, as well as the role they play in your daily life, you can take the first steps toward improving them. Whether it’s through a brain training mobile app, mindfulness meditation, regular exercise, adequate sleep, or all of the above, you’ll be on your way to enhancing your cognitive function in no time.

If you’re ready to start improving your working memory and short-term memory, download the Elevate app on iOS or Android and discover 40+ brain training games—including several specifically designed to improve memory skills—personalized training programs, and expert guidance to help you optimize your cognitive function and improve your overall performance in daily life. 

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