Information Age Education
   Issue Number 32
December, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

The previous issue of this newsletter (see provided an overview of nature, nurture, and tools. It emphasized how these work together to help us resolve challenging cognitive problems. This issue focuses on the capabilities and limitations of working memory, a central brain system.

Biological Capabilities and Limitations

The current US average life expectancy is about 78 years, 30 years higher than a century ago. Humans could theoretically live for decades beyond our current life span, but that capability would come at enormous biological cost. We would need additional back up and regenerative systems, a fail-safe immune system, protective mechanisms for additional external and internal dangers, and a much larger body/brain than we currently have, in order to support all this extra capability.

We've used our considerable cognitive abilities to develop technologies that compensate for our biological limitations, and we expend much of our energy (translated into income) to pay for technologically enhanced food, clothing, shelter, travel, and medical needs.

The biological and technological tradeoff is to balance cost and benefit—to provide whatever is necessary to carry out the desired functions, but to not go very far beyond that. Let's explore one such issue, our ability to effectively process useful space/time information.


Most animals live in the here and now, so they don't concern themselves with what's elsewhere, and with past/future events. Our large forebrain's capabilities evolved to allow us to contemplate and respond to broader space/time issues—here/there, then/now/later, and imagined settings.

Here and now information has strong sensory support, and so it's processed relatively easily. Conversely, if a decision needs to factor in past and possible events, or what's occurring beyond our sensory range, our brain needs effective long-term information storage and retrieval capability. That's basically what memory does, and its loss through dementia or trauma reduces our existence to the here and now. We lose context, and thus much of what it means to be human.

Scientists don't completely understand the underlying neurobiology of how real life events and behaviors translate into retrievable neuronal network representations. They do however understand the functional organization of our complex memory system that processes skills, facts, and events at both the short and long term levels.

Working Memory

Working memory (processed by a relatively small number of parietal and frontal lobe networks) is the functional core of our memory system, in that it temporary holds and manipulates the information we use during complex cognitive tasks. It's the biological equivalent of what's currently visible on my computer screen. Working memory is supported by an incredible amount of long-term memory (just as what's on my screen is supported by files on my computer and on the Web). Working memory's base is what my emotional system has identified as currently important, and what my attention system is focused on. Memory and predictive systems add relevant past/future supplementary information.

As I write this, the information in my working memory (and on my computer screen) constantly changes as I try to transform my prior studies/experiences and current thoughts on working memory into something that will become meaningful to IAE readers. When I think I've reached that point, I'll place it into my long-term memory and a permanent computer file.

Now imagine that I’m working at my computer on this article and I’m interrupted by a lengthy phone call. What was on my computer screen remained, but what was in my working memory was disrupted, since I needed to use my working memory to carry on the phone conversation. Most of what was in my limited capacity working memory while writing was thus erased during the conversation.

Some people are better than others at multi-tasking. In essence, such people can simultaneously attend to two or more different tasks. Their working memory quickly moves among tasks without loosing its task connections.

Controlled attention is internally driven. It's what I deliberately focus on while working on this document. Stimulus-driven attention is externally driven—the disruptive ringing phone, or some flashing text on a screen display. Most people can control their internally driven attention enough to quickly check out an external stimulus and determine its level of urgency. This is a type of multi-tasking. Others may become frustrated by even a modest disruption when focusing their controlled attention on a task.

Cognitive neuroscientists have discovered that an average person can simultaneously maintain only about seven units of information in working memory. (See the 1956 seminal article by George Miller at We can overcome some of this working memory limitation through chunking— combining related units of information into fewer more easily remembered groups.

For example, suppose that I want to contact a close colleague whose business telephone number is 541-346-2468 – 10 units. My mind represents the telephone number with three chunks: area, company, and office codes. My brain translates “area code” into 541, “company code” into 346, and 2468 into a remembered “count by twos.” Chunking can thus be quite personal—memorized or learned to a high level of automaticity.

Contrast this type of chunking with what occurs if I’ve stored my colleague’s phone number as #5 in my cell phone’s list of stored numbers. I can now contact my colleague by simply pressing 5—and technology has augmented biology.

This type of computer-based chunking is a very powerful aid to the human mind as it works to solve challenging problems. A single chunk, such as “budget spreadsheet” or “Google” serves to quickly retrieve software or locate information that’s needed to solve a current problem.

The Overflowing Brain

The highly respected Swedish cognitive neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has recently published The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. (See He argues that we can best increase our ability to deal with the extension of information by seeking a reasonable balance between our ancient brain's limitations and cultural demands.

Humans have developed reading, writing, calculators, computers, and other tools to help overcome biological limitations in working memory. Working memory is essential to both learning and using tools. Biology and technology are thus (and have always been) collaborators, and not competitors. Klingberg's book is an excellent non-technical analysis of a complex current issue—with good practical advice on how to create a balance between our biological and technological capabilities/limitations.

You might also want to read Bob Sylwester’s “Educating an Attentive Human Brain”:

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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