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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, an article 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 memory according to the research.

Torkel Klingberg, 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 memory.

Other 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 workout.

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.

Alternative Approaches

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.


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