Cognitive Visualization Training: Running ‘Software’ in Your Brain to Enhance Working Memory and More

By on January 27, 2017

When you think of brain training, you probably imagine using some kind of game or app to solve puzzles or challenges. For example, Dual-N-Back training – which can improve working memory – involves remembering sequences of sounds and symbols and identifying when they repeat themselves. Nintendo Brain Age meanwhile involves… well, all kinds of weird stuff.

But what if you could train the same aspects of your brain without turning to an outside source? By running a kind of ‘software’ inside your own mind?

mind palace

We know the brain adapts to the tasks we present it with via brain plasticity; what fires together, wires together. With this in mind then (no pun intended), it only follows that we should be able to train our brains without using any outside apparatus: simply by practicing the tasks that we want it to get better at.

Inside of turning to something outside, we can instead turn to our inner experience and generate our own challenges. This is what I call ‘Cognitive Simulation Training’.

Some Examples: Visual Memory

So far so obtuse. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say that you want to train your visual memory and perhaps your sense of direction. There are plenty of apps and games out there that claim to do this though few of them are backed by sufficient evidence and research. Instead, you can enter your ‘mind palace’ and do some cognitive simulation training…

Simply imagine stepping out of your front door onto your drive. Look around you, what do you see? How many details can you identify on the driveway? What are in the plant pots? What ornaments do you have and where are they located?

Now walk out of the drive and onto the road outside. What do the buildings opposite your house look like from the front? How about your neighbours on either side?

If you’re anything like me, then you’ll be amazed at just how many big blank spots there are in your recollection here. These are sights you pass every single day! Apart from anything else, I find this quite fascinating.

beat-the-system

Now pick a destination to head to that you rarely visit but which you vaguely know the way too. Simply imagine yourself running or driving that route and remember all the different turns you need to make. Can you do it?

Doing this will help you to better cement that particular route, it will show you what gaping holes there are in your attention and it will test your visual memory, visualization skills.

For retrieving visual memories, another trick I like to use is to try recalling old locations that I used to visit regularly. For instance, I might try to visualize an old flat I used to live in, or I might try to visualize an old classroom. In this case, I tend to be surprised at just how much I can remember. What use is it that I can still remember the curtains in an old friend’s house?

The point here though, is that I’m practicing a useful skill: retrieving visual memories. Hopefully, this might mean that when I actually need to remember where I put something (car keys), or my way around a certain building or area; I should find it easier. And by learning the kinds of things that I tend to remember, I can hopefully help myself to make better use of my memory going forward.

Note: I find it interesting that you can also practice this game using computer game levels. I can, for example, still recall the entire first level of Sonic Adventure (called Emerald Coast).

Interactive Challenge 1

For this interactive challenge, I want you to remember the dining room of best friend’s family home. Try to picture as many items in that room as you can. What was the wallpaper like? What furniture was in there? How big was the room?

For extra credit, try walking around the whole house and noting the layout. How many rooms were there? Where were they in relation to one another? What was the garden like?

Working Memory

The example of brain training I used at the start of this post was ‘working memory’. This is one of the brain’s ‘executive functions’ and essentially works like RAM on a computer. This is the kind of memory that lasts for a few seconds – allowing us to ‘carry over’ numbers while performing mental arithmetic for example, to repeat back a phone number or to play games of pairs. This is where we hold information while using it in order to manipulate and transform data.

Enhanced working memory correlates with improved fluid intelligence and is a very important aspect of cognitive function, helping to improve decision making, attention, multitasking and more. Far from being the boring ability to recall phone numbers, it is instead a key ability to hold and work with all kinds of information for moment-to-moment decision making. It’s no surprise then that improving working memory appears to enhance fluid intelligence.

tsd

Unfortunately, training working memory with dual-N-back tests is as boring as it gets and normally involves a poorly made app and a good ten minutes of practice every morning (playing ‘pairs’ or ‘pexeso’ is marginally more enjoyable). Instead, why not turn your attention inward and use an exercise I came up with instead: simply doubling three numbers in sequence.

So, you might start with 72, 56 and 19. These would then become 148, 112, 38. Then 296, 224, 76. And 592, 448, 152. And so on… This not only requires you to handle the maths problems themselves but also to retain the two other numbers while working on each one. In all honesty, I tend to use much easier numbers because it is hard. The great thing though, is that this challenge is infinitely scalable and can be practiced anywhere.

Interactive Challenge 2

Take these numbers: 7, 18 and 22. Double them four times using no paper or working, make sure to do each step in sequence before moving on to the next. Check the bottom of this article for the answers.

Interactive Challenge 3

Or how about using your visual memory instead? In this case, try looking at items on any given surface in front of you – ideally something with around 5-9 items (the capacity of working memory for individual ‘units’ of information is estimated to be 7+/-2). Commit that to memory, look away, do  a small sum, then try to recall as many of the items as possible before checking to see how many you missed.

The second challenge here is utilizing an interesting part of our working memory called ‘The Visuo Spatial Scratchpad’. This is essentially the visual component that allows us to remember what we have just seen and it’s actually likely the part of the working memory that would have been most critical to our survival in the wild. The visuo-spatial scratchpad is what would have allowed us to identify the location of predators then turn our back to flee, without forgetting precisely where they were in space.

Another exercise I like to use to test this is to play the visual memorization task but to handle it entirely in my mind’s eye. For instance: imagine a table that is filled with five items. Picture that table and commit it to memory. Then try to recreate it again after a short pause to see it is still available to you.

Verbal Fluency and Long Term Memory Retrieval

Working memory is a great skill to hone with brain training tasks that will have beneficial knock-on effects in many areas of your life. But if you want to train something more specific that has real-world use, then how about verbal fluency?

I hate the fact that my brain tends to work faster than my mouth and that I’m often left looking like a dumbass because I can’t remember the thing I was going to say one minute ago, or because I can’t remember a person’s name. This is ‘verbal fluency’, or the ability to quickly retrieve the words we need for a given scenario.

Words

One way you can train this with no need for any outside influence is by challenging yourself to retrieve certain words. For instance, you can play the old drinking game I used to play where you need to think of people or objects in certain categories beginning with each letter of the alphabet. For example, if we were to pick ‘films’:

American Pie, Black Beauty, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Doctor No, Elektra…

Interactive Challenge 4

For interactive challenge 4, try to complete the rest of that list. Go as fast as you can. For extra points, repeat the test a second time, making sure not to repeat any of the same answers.

Through brain plasticity, our cognitive function works on the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. In other words, the more you practice a certain skill, the better you become at that skill. If you repeatedly practice retrieving specific words under a time limit, then you’ll become better at doing just that.

A similar example is to try digging out old memories. One example that is surprisingly difficult is trying to remember what you had for dinner last night. The night before. And the night before that. Likewise, try to remember the names of the characters in a TV program you’re currently watching (or used to watch). Or how about remembering what clothes you wore over the last few days?

remember me

Of course, we can also use visualization to create stores of information as a way to ‘organize’ them and make them easier to retrieve. Enter: the mind palace technique. Here, you visualize a real or imagined location in your mind’s eye and then commit the items there to specific locations, making them easier to find in future when you need to remember them.

Or how about travelling inside your own mind to retrieve lost memories and thoughts? How about taking a virtual tour through your own autobiographical memory?

Active Visualization and Mindfulness

There are many more exercises that you can challenge yourself with using just your mind and your visualization skills. If you can think of any more, then please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Regardless of what cognitive process you are ‘targeting’ with this kind of training though, you should find that there are additional benefits. For starters, I highly suspect that this kind of training will have similar benefits to meditation. In many ways, it is a form of meditation; it also involves being more aware of your own mind and taking conscious control of your attention and focus.

Meditation has been shown to increase whole brain connectivity, which correlates with improved working memory and may be a predictor of highIQ.

Bruce Lee Meditating

Whenever you ‘visualize’ something it causes areas of the brain to light up as though those things were really happening – this may be the basis for our very understanding of the world around us (see my post on embodied cognition). Over time, this activation alone can be enough to trigger neuroplasticity and therefore structural change. What fires together, wires together; regardless of whether that firing is triggering by external stimuli. In theory, by practicing visualization or repeating certain mental tasks, you could thereby redesign the shape of your own brain to become more efficient at specific given tasks. Of course visualization itself is also a useful tool that can be trained and that could have a variety of other uses in and of itself.

And this kind of training can also be combined with general mindfulness during day to day tasks. For example, challenging yourself to be aware of more of your surroundings by committing them to memory. Or keeping an active ‘mental map’ of the route you have taken during any navigation – such that you could point to the direction of your origin if you needed to. Simply use your brain actively to visualize, memorize, predict or manipulate the information around you in real-time.

We’ve seen that something at least akin to synaesthesia can be trained. But imagine if through practice you could restructure your brain to give you a kind of ‘augmented reality’ using passive visualization – you could highlight points of interest or animate an arrow pointing to your point of origin at all times. Theoretically, active visualization and lots of practice could make this possible. In other words, by running this ‘mental software’ in context repeatedly, you could get it to ‘run’ in the background and augment your abilities – changing your own firmware as you did. That is very hypothetical though and might just be me going off into cloud cuckoo land…

This is something I intend to revisit and practice in a big way over the coming months and I’ll be updating you with my findings and strategies here of course.

For now though, consider using some of these ‘cognitive simulation training’ exercises to train your working memory, verbal memory and visuo-spatial scratchpad. It’s something interesting you can do in bed before you fall asleep. I find it a little more engaging than regular meditation and it certainly beats boring dual-n-back training…

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Answer

The answers to interactive challenge two: 112, 288 and 352.

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.