How to Improve Your Working Memory
Most researchers agree that what we call "working memory"
has something to do with one's level of intelligence. In fact,
on Live Science reported that, "Researchers have found
that a simple test of working memory capacity strongly predicts
a person's performance on a battery of intelligence tests that
measure everything from abstract problem-solving to social intelligence."
The good news is that you can
improve your working memory capacity; more on how to do that
in a moment.
What is working memory? It's the brain's system for holding
temporary information in our minds while we use it to think.
It's considered by many to consist of the brain's central components
for reasoning and problem-solving. The concept of working
memory was developed as a model for understanding how we
use our short-term memory to think.
The crucial part of working memory that is sometimes called
one's "focus of attention," is very limited; we can
only hold a few things in our working memory at one time. Early
research suggested the
limit might be one thing, but now it's generally agreed that
we can hold up to four bits of information at once.
When it appears that we are working with more than four items,
it is because we "chunk" thngs, like separating phone
numbers into three and four digit groups which are then remembered
each as one thing. This kind of "chunking" is an obvious
way to improve the efficiency of our thinking, although it does
not increase the capacity of working memory.
Now for the good news. To start with, there are variations
in working memory among individuals, so you might be one of the
lucky ones who can hold a little more information in your conscious
mind while using it to reason. If not, you can improve your working
to the research.
a cognitive neuroscience professor at the Karolinska Institute
in Sweden, ahs done a number of studies which show possible improvements
in working memory. For example, subjects were shown one number
after another on a computer screen and then asked to recall the
one just before the one on the screen at the moment. They did
this relatively quickly, but were much slower when asked to recall
the number shown two or three numbers before the one on the screen
at the moment.
What was interesting is that with practice there did seem
to be some increased ability to recall those earlier numbers
-- and more quickly. This is seen by some as evidence of the
expansion of working memory. Others say that that it may just
result from learning to better identify the "position"
of the numbers, which may not involve any improvement in working
research done by Klingberg has shown that children with ADHD
benefit significantly from doing working memory exercises. Even
months after the tests were done parents of the children reported
that hyperactivity and inattention were still reduced.
Mental Exercises for Working Memory
In time we'll see if the research results are replicated,
and the alternate explanations ruled out. If so perhaps more
specific (and proven) exercises will be developed that can be
proven to improve working memory. In the meantime, any mental
exercises that seem to target working memory are probably good
for brain function in general, even if it turns out that they
do not directly improve working memory.
There are online
tests and exercises for developing your working memory. In
the research the most common test/task used is the "n-back,"
in which subjects are shown a series of numbers one at a time
and asked to recall the number just before the one being shown,
or a number up to four before it. Other exercises use colored
squares in a pattern, with subjects trying to recall which were
where when the colors are removed.
A good example of a game that might help develop one's working
memory is a card game called "Concentration." All of
the cards are laid face down on a table and spread out. Then
two cards are flipped face up by a player. If they match the
player gets to keep the pair and try again. Otherwise the cards
are again flipped face-down and the turn ends.
Of course the difficulty is in remembering where all the various
cards are. If you can do that then when you flip over a "six,"
for example, you can recall where another six was previously
exposed and turn it over to win the pair. The player with the
most pairs at the end (when the cards are all off paired up)
wins. Certainly this game involves working memory, and whether
or not it specifically improves that, it is at least a good mental
An air traffic controller game has been said to help (I haven't
seen the game). It seems it would require a real exercising of
working memory, since a player presumably would need to keep
in mind and work with several bits of information at once. Keeping
track of planes landing and taking off is not a job I would want,
but as a game it might be fun to try.
Of course some of us get bored with memory and concentration
games. And if one has a decent working memory to start with,
it isn't clear that seeking to improve it would give the biggest
gains in thinking ability. Consider for a moment all the researchers
working on this problem, most of whom are probably not doing
many exercises themselves to try to improve it. What leads them
to new discoveries is the approach they take. Though most of
these researchers are likely intelligent, this reasoning and
creativity is not based on raw intelligence alone, but on how
they use it.
A change of perspective, for example, or the willingness to
challenge existing assumptions, can lead to new discoveries,
new knowledge. A higher IQ would not necessarily encourage this
nor help. So although a way to improve working memory -- and
the presumed IQ boost that would come with it -- would be nice,
there are other things we can do to increase the efficiency of
our thinking and the creativity of our problem solving.
As this webiste and the Mind Power Report have stressed
before, once we have a minimum level of basic intelligence, how
we use it becomes more important than the measure of our raw
brainpower. Then again, it can't hurt to be more intelligent,
if that's what happens when we develop our working memory.