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Executive Functions 101: Nonverbal Working Memory

The third executive function to develop in early childhood is nonverbal working memory.

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You can read more about the first two executive functions here:

What is Nonverbal Working Memory?

Watercolor of an eye

Dr. Russel Barkley calls nonverbal working memory the "mind's eye" in his book "Taking Charge of Adult ADHD". This is your ability to hold information in the form of pictures, sounds, tastes, feelings, and scents. This executive function allows us to look at the past and use that information to decide how best to move forward.

Nonverbal working memory not only allows us to learn from our past actions, it also allows us to learn from other's actions and decide if we want to imitate them or do something different depending on the outcomes.

Kind of like when we watch an older sibling push all of the boundaries set by our parents, and then we watch the corresponding consequences that result from that boundary-pushing. We are far less likely to push the same boundaries if the outcomes are rough. This is also called vicarious learning.

Some other ways nonverbal working memory supports us:

  • Deferred gratification (we can't wait for the big reward, we take the small immediate reward instead.)

  • Time management

  • Predicting what is coming next

How Does Weak Nonverbal Working Memory Impact Us?

Watercolor of a man running in the subway
  • Poor time management - no recognition of the passing of time, inability to judge how long something will take, inability to manage yourself in according to time.

  • Difficulty remembering - can not accurately remember past events

  • Doesn't learn from other's experiences

  • Little foresight - unable to predict what is happening and prepare for it

  • Slow self-awareness - takes longer for you to notice the mental signals that it's time to change your behavior to help you reach your goals.

How Can We Improve Our Nonverbal Working Memory?

Improving our nonverbal working memory, like the previous executive functions, is going to take a combination of intentionality, practice, and creating an accommodating environment.

Write Things Down

A watercolor of a woman journaling

Go old school and write things down with pen and paper. It is important to avoid digital devices for this. Not only is it easy to get distracted with digital devices, but the research shows that physically writing things on paper has better retention than it's digital counterpart. .

Writing things down can encompass a lot of activities. Write to-do lists, brain dumps, schedules, goals, agendas, etc. My grandma has been writing her daily activities in little pocket calendars for (at least) the last four decades. You can ask her what she did on August 2nd 1999 and she'd be able to tell you. I used to think this was nuts, but as it turns out, this habit improves memory, encourages reflection on the day, and increases self-awareness.

Create a Mind Map

If you have a big project due, or a busy day ahead of you and you aren't sure where to start, you can make a mind map. Take sticky notes and write down everything you need to do. Take those sticky notes and arrange them in the order they need to be accomplished. This system works well because it can be adjusted easily as we think through a project. Plus it triggers the imagery side of nonverbal working memory, strengthening that skill.

A watercolor of a man in his office surrounded by towers of paperwork and clutter

Limit Distractions

Make whatever it is you are trying to focus on the complete priority. Clear your workspace of anything other than that project.

Yes, this includes your phone.

Start a Journaling Practice

This can look however you want. Draw it out, write it down, scream it into the void. Just find a way to reflect on your day. What happened? How did you respond? How could things have gone better? Worse? This practice strengthens your self-awareness and nonverbal working memory by forcing you to sift through sensory inputs from your day and put them into words.

Read more about the executive functions at

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