Memory is a complex interconnection of mechanisms serving a wide variety of purposes. In the most basic terms, it is responsible for the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information on conscious and subconscious levels. The following paper discusses the differences between two such mechanisms, namely working memory and procedural memory.
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The most apparent difference between working memory and procedural memory can be explained in terms of storage and utilization mechanisms that underlie both concepts. From this standpoint, working memory can be viewed as a high-priority storage area used for holding information readily available for conscious use. The main purpose of working memory is to ensure the completion of a task that requires operating more than one routine. One example of such a task is text processing. In order to understand an idea presented through written text, the brain needs to retain the information contained in it.
However, reading is a linear process, which means that text requires a certain amount of time to go through. In this scenario, working memory ensures that the information from the text’s beginning is retained by the time the reader finishes the sentence. The same process is observed during a conversation: in order to be able to respond to the argument voiced by the opponent, an individual needs to remember it for a certain time (specifically, the time necessary for the opponent to finish formulating a thought).
As can be seen, working memory is retained for a relatively short period of time. The typical time span of working memory ranges from 10 to 15 seconds (Kundu, Sutterer, Emrich, & Postle, 2013). It is also capable of holding a relatively small number of objects – seven is considered an average maximum (Kundu et al., 2013). For this reason, the concept is used interchangeably with short-term memory. However, it is important to understand that while it shares several characteristics with the latter, it includes a range of processes collectively responsible for the temporary storage and processing of information.
Procedural memory is a type of long-term memory responsible for the ability to accomplish complex motor actions. The most familiar example of procedural memory is the skill of riding a bike: after being acquired, it is retained for the rest of an individual’s life and can be reactivated with little to no observable deterioration (Morgan-Short, Faretta-Stutenberg, Brill-Schuetz, Carpenter, & Wong, 2014). Procedural memory has a number of key differences from working memory.
First, it is capable of storing massive amounts of data. For instance, the activity of riding a bike mentioned above requires a number of distinct skills such as maintaining equilibrium, reacting to the observable environment, and performing several mechanical actions. Second, it has a longer storage time span – in some cases, it can be retained throughout an individual’s life. Third, it relies on subconscious mechanisms and thus does not require conscious effort for successful utilization. Fourth, it is developed through learning and practice. Thus, once acquired, procedural memory allows for relatively effortless and automated performance of activities. For this reason, this type of memory is also referred to as implicit since it does not require explicit effort on the part of the individual.
As can be seen, working memory is different from procedural memory in a number of aspects. Working memory is a short-term, conscious, highly operable memory capable of storing small amounts of information. On the other hand, procedural memory stores large volumes of data organized in complex structures with a high degree of accuracy for long time spans. Therefore, the former is used to process information dynamically, whereas the latter is responsible for the automation of complex motor skills.
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Kundu, B., Sutterer, D. W., Emrich, S. M., & Postle, B. R. (2013). Strengthened effective connectivity underlies transfer of working memory training to tests of short-term memory and attention. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(20), 8705-8715.
Morgan-Short, K., Faretta-Stutenberg, M., Brill-Schuetz, K. A., Carpenter, H., & Wong, P. C. (2014). Declarative and procedural memory as individual differences in second language acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 17(1), 56-72.