Working memory, or short-term memory, is the part of memory in which information that people are currently processing is stored. Problems with working memory can arise with seemingly irrelevant material, making it difficult to retain. Distraction and stimuli overload also can be problems with working memory. Medical conditions and some medicines also can hamper a person’s short-term memory.
Working memory comes after sensory memory, which includes all of the stimuli with which people are in contact, whether visual, auditory or tactile. Pieces of information, thoughts and ideas that people process and retain are then transferred from their working memory to their long-term memory. Problems with working memory can cause people to lose focus and can prevent important information from making it to their long-term memory.
Random, confusing or seemingly irrelevant information can be difficult for people to retain and can cause problems with working memory. Information in working memory decays rapidly. Facts, concepts and strings of numbers, letters or words are easier for people to remember if they make sense and can be connected with the existing information in people’s long-term memory. A phone number, which is typically divided into various segments of three or four numbers each, is easier to store in working memory than a seemingly meaningless string of several random numbers.
Distraction is another one of the problems with working memory. A person might be trying diligently to listen to important information from a telephone call or gather important information from a website or television program. If something happens that causes a distraction, such as continuous talking, then the person trying to pay attention might either not be able to get the information into his or her working memory or could lose it once it is there because extraneous stimuli might take its place. Interference is a significant short-term memory problem.
Stimuli overload is another challenge to successful retention of information in working memory. While similar to distraction, stimuli overload or sensory overload indicates there are too many stimuli around, making them unable to focus as needed. If a person is trying to study in a home where music is blaring, a lack of air conditioning is making it hot, people are moving around a lot and food is cooking — appetizing or not — then he or she is likely to have difficulties keeping any study information in his or her working memory.
Some medical and mental disorders also can cause difficulties with retaining information in working memory. Dementia, a condition that causes people to suffer from memory loss, for example, also can cause problems with working memory. People with dementia may forget the location of their keys or other important materials, which are details that are usually stored temporarily in working memory. Other conditions, such as depression or fatigue, can similarly make it difficult for people to focus and retain information in their working memory. Some medications also can cause short-term memory problems.