Working Memory Brain

The Pre-Frontal Cortex

Your Working Memory is located right at the front of the brain in the area known as the Pre-Frontal Cortex.  It is also called the PFC. You can almost touch the PFC. To find it, 1) Look in a mirror.

2) Place your middle finger between your eyebrows, with your fingertip touching your forehead.

3) Touch your index finger to your head.

Underneath your index finger, through the skin and bone of your head, is the Pre-Frontal Cortex. Your body values the Pre-Frontal Cortex so much that it placed the PFC behind one of the hardest parts of the skull, your forehead.

Standing at the front of the brain, the Pre-Frontal Cortex is the conductor who tells the other parts of your brain what to do. With brain imaging like MRI scanning, we can see the Pre-Frontal Cortex glowing when it fires thoughts back and forth between the different areas of the brain. It directs the language areas to help understand new words, create poetry, or write a coherent paragraph. It directs the math areas to calculate the answer to a complex problem. It tells your emotional center to calm down and not overreact. With it, your brain can make beautiful music. But without it your brain will struggle to pull off a single harmony.

(From Booklet 1: Working Memory an Introduction, p. 6. Free with a purchase of Jungle Memory)

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What Separates Us From the Animals

Have you ever wondered why humans are at the top of the food chain? It’s not because we are faster, stronger, or have sharper teeth.

It’s because of our Pre-Frontal Cortex (or PFC) gives our Working Memory the mental space necessary to construct strategies and technologies from telescopes to spaceships, from the telephone to the internet. Fortunately for us, Great White Sharks don’t have a PFC that would allow them to invent a gun. If you compare human brains with other animal brains you can see a big difference.

In fishes, amphibians, and reptiles, the PFC occupies a much smaller area of the brain, and is smooth. In mammals, the PFC is more complex, and folds like nooks and crannies have developed in the brain. If you’ve ever thought your dog is smarter than your cat, you’re right: in terms of PFC size and complexity, cats are the underdog. Humans come out on top: their PFC is larger and it has more folds than any other primate.


Joaquín M. Fuster (2008), The Pre-Frontal Cortex, Academic Press.

Herrick, C. J. (1956). The Evolution of Human Nature. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Creutzfeldt, O. D. (1993). Cortex Cerebri. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

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Connected Cortex: The Rainforest

You can think of your child or student’s Pre-Frontal Cortex like the dense canopy of a Rainforest.

A happy Pre-Frontal Cortex is filled with interconnected brain cells (called neurons). The more connections, the more it is able to process information. When they were ten weeks in the womb, the neurons were like close, but separate saplings that had just been planted. Seventeen weeks after conception, these neurons developed branches (called dendrites). By the time they were born, these branches were connecting with other branches. At just 15 months old, if you were looking up from the floor of the ‘forest’ you would see a shady and dense canopy of interconnected branches. Because of these connections, they can pay attention, multi-task, compute math problems, and form sentences.

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Brain Hormones: Hooked on Working Memory

Have you ever felt satisfaction when you wrote a well-composed sentence, or solved a complicated math problem? It is because using your Working Memory caused your brain to produce feel-good hormones.

Using Working Memory is associated with the production of Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine gives feelings of acute pleasure, while Serotonin gives a more sustained sense of well being. Because of Dopamine and Serotonin, you can become hooked on using your Working Memory. The stronger the Working Memory, the more Dopamine and Serotonin is released in the brain. 


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What Working Memory Looks Like

With neuroimaging, we can see Working Memory in action.

Because Working Memory directs different areas of the brain, brain scans look different for different Working Memory tasks. If we were to scan a student’s brain when they were doing a math problem, we would see their Pre-Frontal Cortex light up, as well as their Intraparietal Sulcus (located near the back of the brain), the place in the brain associated with computation. If they were reading, we would see their Pre-Frontal Cortex light up as they were processing the words, as well as Broca’s area (in the left hemisphere of the brain), which helps us understand language. Above is a picture of what the brain looks like when Jazz musicians engage in the Working Memory intensive task of musical improvisation.


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