Element 18:

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

“It can be said that the working memory is the staging area where your brain makes order out of chaos.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

processor[1]Information that the brain labels as meaningful does just not magically appear in your long-term memory banks. It must first pass through a prioritization process that takes place in what is called working memory. This is the vital part of the Meaning Network that acts as a staging area where information tagged with emotional and somatic (body) markers is temporarily processed and evaluated to see whether it meets certain criteria so that it can then be selected into your long-term memory.

It could be said that the working memory staging areas are where the brain makes order out of chaos. Estimates of how many bits of information our brains process each second vary. In his book Elemental Mind, Nick Herbert estimates that our brain receives 100 million bits of information per second from each eye, 10 million bits of information per second from the skin, and 30,000 bits of information per second from the ears. When all this external information is combined with the billions of bits of internal information our mind is processing, Herbert estimates that our brain is dealing with an incredible 10 trillion bits of information each second. Working memory can be looked at like the editor of a book or a movie deciding which bits of information are relevant and should be retained for later use and which are irrelevant and should be discarded.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of your working memory functions

Four Factors of Working Memory

  1. It prioritizes information based on the intensity of emotional and somatic feedback. The higher the emotional charge and the greater the bodily changes associated with the information being processed by other brain areas, the higher priority that information has for being included into working memory. The reason it is so much easier to remember a bear you see in your backyard than in a magazine is because the bear in your backyard elicits higher emotional and somatic tagging, which gives it priority in working memory.
  2. Because working memory space is limited, it can only hold so much data. When our brains are overwhelmed with information, such as work, families, and finances, we tend to forget things, not necessarily because we have bad memories but because working memory space can only hold so much. When our working memory capacity is full and we add something new, to make room, something else must get bumped out.
  3. Inclusion into its space is dependent upon information that the brain already holds as meaningful. Working memory provides the stable place where new input can be matched up with information already held in long-term memory. In other words, if the brain thinks the new information will support our surviving and thriving based on what our genes and previous experiences have encoded as meaningful, then working memory will pay more attention.
  4. Information can only be held here for a temporary period of time, ranging from seconds to weeks. This is a work space, and like a carpenter’s bench, things placed here are not meant to hang around for long periods. Once working memory has emotionally prioritized and somatically tagged information and then matched this data with previously encoded meaningful knowledge, information is either passed to long-term memory or drops out to make room for something new.

Structures of Working Memory

brainillistration[1]Here we will quickly focus on the three main structures of the brain responsible for working memory. Information marked by other brain areas with somatic and emotional tagging is first picked up by the anterior cingulate, which focuses our attention on this data and does a quick and rough appraisal to see if it matches previously learned information in long-term memory. If the anterior cingulate finds a general match, a more refined and elegant matching process is accomplished in the lateral prefrontal cortex. It could be said that the anterior cingulate works like a spotlight, broadly surveying the rear associative areas where long-term memory is held to see if previously encoded meaningful information makes a match with the new information. The lateral prefrontal cortex then works like a laser beam, providing a more efficient and refined pinpointing of relevant matching data. If the anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal areas deem the information valuable to our survival, they then call on the support of the hippocampus in the limbic system, which ensures that this new information gets logged into the correct long-term category network in the rear associative areas. It is the hippocampus that makes sure meaningful information we perceive, for example, about a new make of car will be placed into our car networks, where we can easily access it, and not in our fruit networks, where it would be difficult to find – lost among the apples and the pears.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How memory research resulted in telephone numbers, minus the area codes, being seven digits long.

Why you can pass a test and three months later have little or no recollection of the test’s content.

How the emphasis on grades forces the brain to select for inclusion into long-term memory not the information studied but the strategies used to pass tests.

Why, if you do not get enough relaxed downtime, you cannot transfer information you have placed in working memory into your long-term memory banks.

Which neurotransmitters help the brain make chaos out of order in the brain.

Which neurotransmitters improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the brain, mark data as meaningful and create a stable background canvas of cell firing so the most important information can stand out in your mind.

How to increase the activation of the vital neurotransmitters, which allow you to most effectively place relevant data into working memory.

What neural static is and how it garbles the information placed into your working memory banks, making you appear less intelligent than you are.

What causes a downshift in your neural energy away from your working memory, thus making it hard for you to remember important data.

Why two people can be exposed to the exact same information in the exact same environment and one will remember almost everything and the other will remember almost nothing.

To help you understand more about working memory, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

No Learning Without Emotion

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

Addicted to Meaning

The Motivational Problem

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education