Working Memory

  • Introduction
  • About Working Memory
  • Strategies
  • Tools

Introduction – Working memory

Impairments to working memory can make it feel as though nothing will stick and as though we can no longer multi-task.

You really can’t think of more than one thing at a time, and while you are trying to think, you are aware that something is missing.

It feels as though your brain is looking for something it can’t find. You know that something should be happening but you don’t know what this is or what is missing. 

Many of you will feel frustration because this phenomenon can occur in every thought. 

You need to be careful of recognising frustration because it can soon lead to anger. Very often there is no awareness that irritation is building, and before you now it, the exasperation has become full blown fury. Learning to pause is a useful strategy to help you understand the first hints of annoyance.

Trying to pin down exactly why this happens can be fruitless because so many deficits work together to create this problem. 

While there is often a temptation to try and find out what is broken so that you can fix it, things aren’t that simple. You are better focusing your energy on building strategies that will help you cope until things naturally find their way back towards how they used to be.

Think of droplets of oil on water – they want to come together, and this is what will happen in your brain when you shift your attention to using tools to help you. 

About Working Memory

Working memory allows us to manipulate transitory information by applying executive skills such as comprehension, reasoning, and logic.  

After the brain is injured it can feel as though you have to work excessively hard to hang on to short-term memory long enough to be able to recognise and understand it.

Manipulating in-the-moment information can seem impossible, and in many ways it is.

The neural networks or pathways that would allow the utilisation of many skills and information together are broken.

It isn’t you who is failing – it is your brain failing you. When you see things this way around you can understand why we need to do everything we can to help the brain rewire.

Poor working memory is one of the things that can make us vulnerable after the brain is injured. It is much harder to ‘instantaneously’ break incoming information down, apply knowledge from historical visual and verbal memory, and hence control our understanding. 

Strategies

There are many strategies we can use to help with day-to-day living, and our attitude is probably one of the most important aspects of how well we will do.

Understanding just how much we can help ourselves by accepting that things may need to be done differently now, can make a world of difference.

While you may struggle to see why you need to use external aids to help you, try and trust that one day you will know precisely why and will recognise the usefulness of using tools in rewiring the brain. 

Your key focus should be on rewiring – not on fixing or mending. 

Rewiring allows what you have lost to come back together. Fixing means you are trying to relearn from scratch. 

When you have issues with working memory function you also have problems with learning new things. You can see that it makes sense to adapt to using external tools so that you take the intensity of the amount of information you are trying to understanding outside of you. 

In turn, this gives you more ‘thinking space’ because you have put some of the work your brain would otherwise be doing in front of you where you can see it and where it won’t get lost.

You will probably be familiar with the feeling that as soon as you try and shift your attention to be aware of more of the information you need that you lose the information you already had. 

Using tools helps you to break this vicious circle and helps you calm your emotional responses because you can easily recognise you are working on taking back control.

All the time you think you can still do things the way you did before, is all the time you hinder rebuilding the functionality of the working memory. 

The Inner Battle

You will likely be aware of the ‘battle of the brains.’ You will know that your primitive brain will think one thing and that your mind will know another. It will make you question what you are doing and what other people are advising.

It can be impossible to make the primitive brain to shut up. It wants to do things as it did before because how we do things connects with our sense of self. The ego is a vital tool because the brain needs to know who we are, who ‘it’ is, in order to reinstate our preferences.

If our preferences aren’t rebuilt the way they were before we will feel a profound sense of loss. For this reason, and because the goal must be to feel like you again, we need to consciously balance the brain and mind.

We do this by recognising we need to adapt and use tools and strategies. 

Reasoning

Give yourself time to allow ideas to formulate.

It doesn’t always follow that those who had a strong working memory pre-injury will fare better than those who didn’t. It very much depends on the extent and nature of the damage.

The main thing to remember is that even though it doesn’t feel like it – everything is going ‘in there’ somewhere. You may suddenly have ‘ah-ha’ moments many months after a problem first arose and you either forgot about it or were aware that your brain was constantly revisiting it. 

It is the recall and management of moment-to-moment events in short-term memory that is the main contributor to frustration. Learning to be patient and learning to let things go is vital for self-esteem. This ability is also essential if you share a home with other people because constant displays of frustration can cause an atmosphere. 

Acknowledge that for now, you have difficulty following what you are doing, accept this as part of the journey, and release stress because this only worsens the problems you have. Slowing down and being methodical will support the brain and make the journey through this phase more comfortable.

Tools to aid working memory

There are external tools we can use to help us remember things or break information down such as:

  • Post-it notes
  • Whiteboards
  • Diaries
  • Calendars
  • Lists
  • Notebooks

Paper-based systems are a strategy for managing our everyday life. They helps us remember what to do and when we need to do it.

There are also electronic tools we can use but they can be difficult to manage if they aren’t synchronised. You also have to remember to use them and how to use them.

There are apps that do things for you which we need to be wary of. You don’t want to become dependent on them and fail to rewire your brain because the work was being done for you. 

GBIA have partnered with BEST Connections because they offer on-line cognitive training and also the BEST Suite of apps. The BEST  Suite makes you think about what you want and what you are doing, helping you gain insight as you use it. 

If you want your brain to rewire so that you can take back control we recommend you use the BEST Suite.