Application: Phonological Loop

Today I started reading Alan Baddeley’s Working Memory, Thought and Action


One of my reasons was to understand myself: I have long entertained the idea that there was something slightly abnormal about my memory.  This afternoon, I may have stumbled on an explanation of my difficulties. I wanted to share my idea because it nicely illustrates how theoretical concepts can enrich and improve people’s lives.


When I was in high school, I got the standard pitch about long-term memory and short-term memory. It turns out that, here, curriculum lags research by several decades. Short-term memory as a conceptual entity was dismissed during the 1980s. Working memory was its replacement.


In his book, Baddeley describes the two primary functional components of his model: the phonological loop, and the visuo-spatial scratchpad. The former is activated when you rehearse information, often subvocally (“that person at the wedding was named Audrey.. Audrey.. Audrey”).  This loop helps to reinforce memory traces, and has been shown to operate near the language centers of the brain (left hemisphere).  The scratchpad, by contrast, is associated with spatial reasoning (“if I take three lefts and then a right I’ll escape this corn maze”).  Neuroimaging has localized this mechanism to the right hemisphere of the brain.


  1. I read textbooks out loud to myself. Literature like Baddeley’s is often dense and requires careful attention. When I am not distracting anyone, I revert to this recitation exercise, and it helps me concentrate.
  2. I have always been a visually oriented creature. A detailed schematic holds more weight in my mind than a chapter’s worth of text.
  3. As I was being introduced to the notion of the phonological loop, I decided to try it for myself. During his experiments, Baddeley often directs his subjects to recite five or six letters or numbers to establish the loop. I began to subvocalize the first seven letters of the alphabet to myself, silently reciting ‘a’ through ‘g to myself over and over. But the singsong quality of this exercise did not persist, and before long I noticed that I was imagining typing those letters with my left hand.


My phonological loop is weak.

In symptom 3 above, the acoustic qualities of my recitation weakened over time. Not content to watch the cycle deteriorate, my visuo-spatial sketchpad swung online with its image of a keyboard, significantly easing the task burden. Symptom 2 can be interpreted as a long-standing preference for the sketchpad. And what is Symptom 1 other than my mind being forced to augment the phonological loop with real, sometimes loud, verbal stimuli?

Concluding Thoughts

The point of the above is not medical, my symptoms are well within the range of a functional human being. Neither is this intended to be original research: I am just beginning to engage the professional literature.

All I am hoping to illustrate is how cognitive science can enrich how we understand our inner lives. With the theoretical tools outlined in the Context section above, I moved from a “that’s funny” stance towards something a little more informed. Perhaps I am on the right track, and should learn to accommodate my suite of genetic (dis-) endowments. Or, perhaps there is some proven technique to restore phonological loops and improve one’s GPA. 🙂 One can always dream.