One powerful way for improving your Working Memory

George Castaneda PhD,  CEO,  World Brain Academy

Working Memory
Mind Mapping


Whenever we execute tasks entailing reasoning, comprehension, creativity, and learning, we use our working memory. It allows us to hold relevant information in the conscious part of our brain.  When performing the act of ‘thinking’, it manipulates information through the complex interaction with other brain networks, going back and forth between the unconscious and conscious networks.
Therefore, working memory could be conceived as a powerful mental scratch pad that not only stores your thoughts and ideas in the short term, but more importantly, enables to combine, reorganize, and synthesize information in meaningful ways for formulating hypotheses, generating ideas, solving problems, understanding things, making decisions, reaching conclusions, predicting the future, and even thinking about thinking (metacognition).

As recent research has found (Chuderski, 2013), working memory strongly correlates with fluid intelligence and reasoning. Therefore, working memory is a key resource for complex cognition.

Working Memory: the engine of conscious thinking
Illustration by Kendo Kumuri
However, working memory has very limited resources that require high cognitive loads. People’s performance declines rapidly with an increase in memory demand in a wide variety of tasks. Memory demand could be equated to the number of independent items that must be simultaneously available in working memory for processing. According to Miller (1956), working memory could hold between 5 to 9 items simultaneously. More recent studies, however, have argued that the capacity limit reflects a limitation of the focus of attention to be directed to a maximum of about four chunks (Conway, Cowan & Bounting, 2001).

So how could you improve this powerful and sophisticated, yet resource-hungry and somewhat limited engine? In this article, we offer one powerful way for using your working memory both efficiently and effectively: represent your problem graphically.

“Graphical representations store information externally, freeing up working memory resources for other aspects of thinking”

People show large improvements in fluid reasoning after learning how to draw diagrams to represent a problem (Nickerson, 2003). Graphical representations store information externally, freeing up working memory resources for other aspects of thinking, serving as the knowledge store. A second advantage is that graphical representations organize knowledge by indexing it spatially, thus reflecting the relationships among the different items of a given problem. For example, if the representation of two items is close in the graphic, it is likely that those items are also close in the problem at hand. Therefore, a spatial arrangement of information allows for interpreting and making inferences of the problem: you could grasp the gist of the problem while seeing how its items interact with the problem. Moreover, when nonvisual information is mapped onto visual variables, patterns often emerge that were not explicitly built in, but which are easily grasped by the graphical representation of the problem (Card, et al., 1999). These representations enable complex reasoning computations to be replaced by simple pattern recognition processes.

Mind Maps: The analogy of Brain Architecture
Illustration by Karen Jones
There are multiple ways for representing knowledge graphically. One of the most powerful is Mind Mapping, which epitomizes the architecture of brain thinking. By drawing images and keywords in a radiant hierarchy, like the branches of a tree, Mind Maps (Buzan & Buzan, 1996) depict a problem, explain its implications and even come up with possible solutions after recombining the information in new meaningful ways. This approach infuses meaning to the whole picture while being able to discern the different categories (chunks) of the problem and their relationships as well. The usage of visual triggers within the diagram, such as images and graphics, makes it easier to recall information later.

The following Mind Map illustrates how Tony Buzan, the inventor of this methodology, designed his book titled “Head Strong”. The main branches represent the chapters of the book, while the sub-branches encapsulate the key information within the chapters. Notice how Tony uses a combination of images, keywords, color and associations to represent the gist of his 300-page book into a single-page canvas.

Head Strong Mind Map
Developed by Tony Buzan

Mind Mapping allows people to draw on all aspects of their intellectual and creative abilities simultaneously. The process of creating a Mind Map helps them commit information to memory, enables them to visualize concepts and the way they relate to one another, and enhances creative thinking and problem solving skills. In other words, Mind Maps use the otherwise limited capacities of working memory in a very powerful way.

Several studies have pointed out that people have benefited from increased attention, organized thinking, and a better approach for sharing ideas by adopting this methodology.  Deciding the structure of the Mind Map, its layout, its keywords and images, and the overall organization of the information it contains, builds critical thinking abilities, and improves problem solving skills.

By using all thought functions simultaneously, including creative and rational thinking, Mind Maps allow people to expand their overall thinking ability and train themselves to think more robustly in the future. They eliminate the single method of approaching a concept or idea and instead employ multiple thought processes without overtaxing the limited but very sophisticated capacities of our working memory.


Buzan, T. & Buzan, B. (1996): The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential. New York, NY: Plume.

Card, S. K., Mackinlay, J. D., & Shneiderman, B. (1999). Readings in information visualization: using vision to think. Morgan Kaufmann.

Chuderski, A. (2013). When are fluid intelligence and working memory isomorphic and when are they not? Intelligence41(4), 244-262.

Conway, A. R., Cowan, N., & Bunting, M. F. (2001). The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: The importance of working memory capacity. Psychonomic bulletin & review8(2), 331-335.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review63(2), 81.


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