Working memory is the amount of information we can mentally hold at any given time—essentially, it’s the mental notepad your brain scribbles on when it needs to remember or process something.
Picture this: It’s your lunch break and you’re standing in line at the salad place down the street from your office. You decide to build your own salad bowl, but there are so many ingredients to choose from—do you want chickpeas or chicken? Kale or spring greens? Beets and sweet potato, or cucumber and tomato?
Perhaps you’re visualizing each veggie, nut, and protein being tossed into a bowl until it looks delicious in your mind, or maybe you’re repeating ingredients in your head until they sound like a satisfying combo. Either way, your working memory is helping you hold that growing list of ingredients as you’re taking in the menu so you can mentally assemble the perfect salad.
After you take in sensory information (in this case, that ingredients), working memory helps you temporarily hold that information and decide what to do with it (i.e., put it in long-term memory or let it go once it’s no longer needed). While our long-term memory storage space is infinite, researchers estimate our brains can remember approximately five to nine things at once (though it varies from person to person).