Working Memory and Fibromyalgia

An Aspect of Cognitive Dysfunction

Your working memory is a system in your brain that allows you to temporarily retain and manipulate the information involved in a complex process. That can include language comprehension, reasoning, and learning new information. The working memory is a part of a larger system called the short-term memory.

Computer screen covered with sticky notes in multiple colors with a woman standing up and looking out of a glass door in the background
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Working memory deals with the information you need to "work" with, such as:

  • Step-by-step instructions
  • The things you need at the store
  • A problem you're trying to solve
  • A phone number

It also deals with how well you pay attention to things, your ability to manipulate visual input, and some of the processes involved in learning new words.

Working memory also processes information retrieved from long-term memory while you're working with it. For example, if you're making dinner and you want your broiled chicken to be done at the same time as a side dish, you may pull broiling times from long-term memory then look at the side-dish recipe to see when you need to start them relative to each other.

You'd further use working memory when putting the side dish together from a recipe and remembering to periodically stir a pot of boiling pasta.

Everyone's working memory has a limited capacity. The average, healthy person can store about seven items in their working memory and hold onto them for about 18 seconds. Certain techniques, such as repeating information over and over, can help it stay in working memory for a longer period of time.

Working memory is a system of active focus used by the brain, not a specific location in the brain where information is stored. Poor working memory is not a sign of low intelligence.

Children typically have a lower capacity that grows as they get older. Adults can have working-memory impairment due to illness.

Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

People with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are believed to have an impairment of their working memories. This symptom is often described by the umbrella terms fibro fog or brain fog which are used to describe the full range of cognitive dysfunction linked to the conditions.

This impairment may help account for problems that people with these illnesses regularly experience, such as:

  • Reduced reading comprehension
  • Difficulty learning new information
  • Inability or reduced ability to follow step-by-step directions
  • Inability or reduced ability to multitask
  • Frequently forgetting things like what you went to the kitchen to do or what you were going to say

For a student, it can make it impossible to follow step-by-step instructions in a science lab. In the workplace, it can mean forgetting important information ("Did that customer want cream with his coffee?") or problems with learning a new computer system.

If you have working memory impairment, it can help to get in the habit of writing things down. You may want to ask your boss or instructors to write down instructions rather than give them to you verbally.

With effort, you may be able to improve your working memory. Repeating things to yourself over and over is one simple way. Another is through games in which you need to remember things. A child's memory game is one example. With a quick search, you can find a lot of this type of game online, including some that come from websites designed to exercise your brain.

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By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.