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Working memory

In this page …

What is 'working memory'?

Working memory is the brain’s ability to hold bits of information and ‘work with’ it. Working memory helps us:

Working memory is involved in nearly everything we do because the brain often needs to hold several bits of information while we are thinking or doing something. Someone with hydrocephalus can have problems with working memory.

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How can hydrocephalus affect 'working memory'?

Working memory operates from the ‘command centre’ in the brain’s frontal lobes. What information is held in working memory, and when, is decided using executive functions. Damage to the frontal lobes or connections with other brain areas and functions can make it difficult for executive functions to work the way they should. This can happen as a result of hydrocephalus (see About Hydrocephalus).

Problems with working memory can happen when we try to process a lot of information quickly. Hydrocephalus can make this even more difficult for the brain.

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Key processes involved in working memory

As we sense and pay attention to new information from the world around us, memories we already have are triggered. These help us to understand what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Working memory holds the most important pieces of information in mind while we understand them and work out whether any action is needed.

Working memory is closely related to the process of inhibition and switching. This makes sure that attention is switched to the right things and that the wrong things are ignored. This allows us to plan an action and start it (initiate).

This needs to happen quickly so that we can think and act in real time. If processing happens too slowly, the information may disappear from working memory.

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Diagram of key processes involved in working memory

key processes in working memory

There are many things that can affect the brain’s thinking. Take a look at the introductory page for a reminder of ‘Other things that can affect how we think and behave’.

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Possible problems

Problems with working memory may add to difficulties with:

  • Holding lots of information in mind at one time.
  • Doing two tasks at once.
  • Getting back to a task after being distracted.
  • Only appearing to ‘get’ or understand part of an instruction, particularly if it is long.
  • Answering questions, particularly long ones.
  • Needing lots of repetition before doing or understanding something.
  • Learning new things.
  • Remembering a plan and acting on it.
  • Keeping a goal in mind to check that it will be reached.

Supporting someone with working memory difficulties can be quite simple. It often involves changing:

  • How much information is given and the format it is in eg writing down information or instructions as well as talking about them; or providing pictures and diagrams.
  • The length of time given for the information to be taken in.
  • Giving information and instructions in small ‘chunks’ eg one at a time.
  • Repeating something a lot. This could be at one sitting or over several times (to help in learning for example).
  • Being realistic about how much can be achieved.

Take a look at the Living with Hydrocephalus section to find out more about how behaviour can be affected by hydrocephalus as well as hints and tips on ways of supporting your young person.

Every individual will be slightly different in the way their thoughts and actions are affected by hydrocephalus (and associated conditions). It is important to think about each individual’s pattern of strengths and difficulties. Patience, determination and trial and error are likely to be needed to find solutions that suit your child’s unique needs.

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