What is working memory?

By Peg Rosen

Expert reviewed by Nelson Dorta, PhD

A child sits at a desk and is doing school work in a notebook with a pencil while biting the nails of their other hand.

At a glance

  • Working memory is like a temporary sticky note in the brain.

  • It’s a skill that lets us work with information without losing track of what we’re doing. 

  • Kids and adults who learn and think differently often struggle with working memory.

Working memory is one of the brain’s executive functions. It’s a skill that allows us to work with information without losing track of what we’re doing. 

Think of working memory as a temporary sticky note in the brain. It holds new information in place so the brain can work with it briefly and connect it with other information.

For example, in math class, working memory lets kids “see” in their head the numbers the teacher is saying. They might not remember any of these numbers by the next class or even 10 minutes later. But that’s OK. Working memory has done its short-term job by helping them tackle the task at hand.

Working memory isn’t just for short-term use. It also helps the brain organize new information for long-term storage. When people have trouble with working memory, the brain may store information in a jumbled way. Or it may not store it for the long term at all. 

Sometimes, what may look like trouble with working memory is actually an attention issue: The information was never put into the brain’s storage system in the first place. Learn more about the differences between attention and working memory

Dive deeper

About the author

About the author

Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Nelson Dorta, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of medical psychology in child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.