Picture this: you are trying to add up all the costs of your shopping trip to Target, in order to figure out how much you have to pay at checkout. Another example of working memory at work is solving a logic puzzle in which you have to sequentially place 5 marathon runners in their respective places. These wonderful processes in our heads as we decipher our answers– can be attributed to your working memory.
Working memory is closely associated with fluid intelligence, the kind of intelligence that is measured by IQ tests. Scientists have theorized that one can improve one’s intelligence by improving one’s working memory. So in this article, we will talk about ways you can improve your working memory to (hopefully) become smarter.
What is Working Memory?
Before you can go ahead with enhancing your working memory, you need to know what it is all about first. Psychologists define working memory as an individual’s ability to keep and manipulate in mind several facts in a short period of time. It is viewed as a cerebral workstation where a person can store info for later use in mental exercises. It gives you the opportunity to make use of the other parts of the brain that are otherwise unengaged. Working memory differs per person, but the universal belief is that it improves with age, especially during childhood. In a population of 8 year olds, about 3 of them have the working memory of 4 year olds, while 3 more have that of 11 year olds (near adult levels).
Mental arithmetic is one of the many applications where working memory is used. It is also utilized in remembering a phone number when you do not have a paper to jot it down, or recalling spoken directions to an unfamiliar place.
To further illustrate what working memory is, here is an illustration provided by Brainscanr that shows the relationship of all cognitive tasks in relations to working memory:
As you can see, working memory has a strong connection in the prefrontal cortex, more so than the connection to the anterior cingulate gyrus.
Why is Working Memory Important?
Working memory is vital for most activities, especially when it comes to learning. It enables one to improve his smarts because it gives him a space to hold important information, while his mind is currently engaged in other activities. For example, it gives the student the opportunity to remember the instructions while she is writing his name on the test paper. Apart from improving the learning process, working memory is vital for focusing on a certain activity, tuning out distractions and updating yourself with what is happening around you.
Fluid Intelligence and Crystallized Intelligence
In Psychology, two kinds of intelligences are recognized. Postulated by Raymond Cattell and developed by John Horn, they are fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Cattell and Horn define fluid intelligence as a person’s ability to solve problems and think logically amidst new situations, without calling the need for acquired knowledge. It is important in most aspects of life, especially for logical problem solving (i.e. mathematic, scientific and technical.)
Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, governs an individual’s capacity to use knowledge, experience and skills. It makes use of long-term memory, that is why it is defined as a person’s cumulative intellectual prowess. Forms of crystallized intelligence include general knowledge and one’s vocabulary.
Working Memory and Fluid Intelligence
One’s fluid intelligence and working memory work hand in hand, as reported by many researches. One of these is a study conducted by Astrid Fry and Sandra Hale. In their paper, they postulated that improvements in fluid intelligence were widely affected by working memory. Drawing inspiration from a 1990 study by Shell, Carpenter and Just that noted that age-related improvements in working memory contribute to better fluid intelligence, the duo went on to study the cascade that occurs with these factors. Results show that improvements in mental processing speeds helped improve working memory, which, in turn, enhanced the individual’s fluid intelligence.
How to Improve Your Working Memory
From the conclusion of Fry and Hale’s study, psychologists and educators have immediately recognized the need to improve a person’s working memory – so his fluid intelligence can be upgraded along the way. So if you too want to further enhance your intelligence, then make sure to undertake these methods on enhancing working memory:
Research from Andreas Fink at University of Graz found that when study participants were thinking of creative ways to use everyday objects and products, the areas of the brain associated with working memory were activated. So when you see everyday objects, try to think of unconventional uses for them. For instance, you can use plastic bags to replace bubble wrap, use floss to stitch up a button, use an ice cube tray to put jewelry, or use buttons to keep your earrings together.
Mindfulness exercises such as meditation has been shown to improve attention and concentration. And in a new twist, some science supports the assertion that meditation can also increase working memory capacity. A study published by Santa Barbara researchers in the journal Psychological Science found that working memory of undergraduates improved after going through an intense two-week meditation course. The metric used to determine increases in working memory capacity was a reading comprehension test.
Train your Brain
If the other methods prove to be bothersome for you, a great way to boost your working memory is to play brain training games. A slew of apps and programs are available in the websites such as Brainmetrix, Lumosity and Fitbrains to name a few. Most of them are free of charge, so there is no harm in trying them out. Further testing needs to be done on the transferability of these brain training games—but results do look promising.
Go for a Run and Exercising Outside
While this is the most unconventional advice that you would receive for enhancing working memory, several studies suggest that the act of running stimulates the prefrontal cortex – known as the seat of working memory. Barefoot running is recommended more so as research by Tracy Alloway, PhD and Ross Alloway, PhD show that shoeless runners exhibited better working memories than those who ran with shoes on. Again, this is just one study and it does not imply causation so more studies need to be done in order to confirm the benefits of barefoot running over running with shoes.
Tracy Alloway and Ross Alloway also recommended exercising outside, specifically recommending a type of exercise advocated by MovNat. MovNat advocates fitness through natural movement. MovNat emphasizes the practice of movement, in and around our natural habitat. The researchers conducted their own research to come to this conclusion. Ross Alloway joined a MovNat workshop to test the working memory of participants throughout the day. Before the workshop, participants were able to remember 4 numbers in backwards order. But at lunchtime, they were able to remember 5. But by the end of the day, they were tired and wary but they were able to remember 6 numbers in backwards order. Of course, this is research is hardly conclusive, largely anecdotal, and does not speak of long term improvements—but this discovery nonetheless lend credence to theory of a connection between our memory and being active.
N-back (and dual n-back)
N-back is claimed by some to be the de facto method of increasing IQ (points) in children and adults. The exercise is also a primary method of measuring working memory in the field of neuroscience. In n-back exercises, you are presented with a sequence of visual or auditory stimuli. Your task is to determine if the current visual or auditory stimuli matches the one from n steps back. In dual n-back both auditory and visual stimuli are simultaneously presented.
If you are interested in doing n-back exercises, the best place to find them through your app store of your mobile phone.
Cognitive Enhancing Drugs and Supplements
Cognitive enhancements (like in the movie Limitless) have been extremely controversial in academia and scientific circles. In addition to questions of long-term health effects, many have posited an ethical dilemma, stating that cognitive enhancement is a form of cheating by artificially boosting one’s brain power. Stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall and nootropics (brain drugs) such as modafinil have been shown to enhance cognition in many people taking it. Currently, the majority of cognitive enhancing medications are prescribed for people with ADHD or other neuropsychological disorders (such as narcolepsy and shift work sleep disorder in the case of modafinil).
I am not here to make an ethical or medical judgment on the use of cognitive enhancements—but science has shown that it does provide a modest increase in memory and does boost overall cognition.
Other than prescription drugs, there is a booming field in brain supplements (also called nootropics). Companies are finding ways to supplement the brain with minerals and vitamins needed for optimal performance. Brain supplements is still in its infancy so there aren’t too many scientific studies out there about how well they work in improving working memory.
Electrical Brain Stimulation
Also called, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), this form of brain stimulation has shown great promise in improving working memory capacity. However, this theory is still in the very early stages of testing by neuroscientists and will have a long way to go before being considered for mainstream usage. Even if it is available to you, do not try this at home without medical supervision.
As you can see, tactics used to improve working memory is not completely agreeable in the scientific community—much testing is still needed to be done. Cognitive science is still a new and emerging field and theories are constantly being put to the test. There are many more theories and hypotheses out there as to how we can increase our working memory capacity and it will be awhile before science can come up with overwhelming agreement as to what will truly improve our working memory. Remember, there is still little understood about the brain in comparison to the heart. So brain health now is where heart health was decades ago.