A New Approach to Training (And Understanding) Working Memory for a Potentially Huge Boost in Cognition

By on March 23, 2017

I used to think that working memory training was one of the dullest and most inane forms of brain training out there. It always seemed odd to me that people interested in cognitive enhancement would dedicate such huge amounts of time to exercises like dual n-back with the aim of boosting this aspect of their cognitive performance. What’s so exciting or interesting about being able to memorize a couple more digits for a few seconds?

craig chess

It turns out that I was wrong about working memory. Really wrong. Actually, I think that working memory might be one of the most important focusses for brain training. But in my defence, I also think that exercises like dual n-back are completely missing the point.

In this post, I’m going to show you an alternative way to think about working memory and I think it’s going to be quite a paradigm shift for many.

An Introduction to Working Memory

So, what is working memory?

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Once again, Tony Stark provides awesome fictional inspiration for the power of working memory and multitasking…

For those that have never studied psychology at any level, the ‘traditional’ view of memory involves splitting it into three parts:

Working Memory

Short Term Memory

Long Term Memory

Long term memory is where you keep your autobiographical memories, where you keep facts about the world and where you keep ideas and stories that resonated with you. This is your long-term storage – the stuff you’ll never forget.

Short term memory meanwhile is the storage for things like names of characters in films, or what you ate for dinner last night. This information is not permanent unless you rehearse it but it should be able to stick around for a good while.

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Finally, working memory can be thought of as ‘even shorter term memory’. This is the brain’s ‘RAM’, which is to say that it is a space for holding small amounts of information that the brain is currently working with. The most common example of this that is given in all the psychology textbooks is remembering a phone number that someone has told you for long enough to write it down or dial it into your mobile.

More importantly though, short term memory is also used for things like maths: if you need to carry a number over while performing a long multiplication, then your working memory will allow you to ‘store’ that number while you manipulate the others.

The working memory is generally assumed to have a ‘limit’, which is estimated to be roughly 7 +/- 2 – 5 at the lowest and 9 at the highest. Theoretically then, you should not be able to store a number that is longer than 9 digits. It also ‘decays’ after a while, unless rehearsed enough to make the transition to short term memory.

Psychologists Baddeley and Hitch developed these ideas a little further by splitting the working memory into more distinct categories. In their view, the ‘central executive’ would reign over all domains, which included:

  • The phonological loop
    • Articulatory loop
    • Acoustic store
  • Episodic buffer
  • Visuo-spatial scratchpad

The phonological loop would be where you would store something like a phone number by repeating it to yourself in your head – hence ‘phonological’. That’s the articulatory loop, whereas the acoustic store would be where something like an earworm (annoyingly catchy song) would go.

Working Memory

The visuo-spatial scratchpad is where you store visual information – such as if you remember the position of items on a table before it gets covered up (anyone remember doing this at school?), while the episodic buffer was added later to represent integrated information/semantic information on its way to the short-term memory.

Training Working Memory Using Old Systems

I’m going to get to why this is a dated way of thinking in a moment. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s address the ‘old fashioned’ ways in which you can train working memory on this basis.

It has long been known that improving working memory can improve performance on IQ tests and that it appears to generally improve fluid intelligence (1).

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways you can enhance these aspects of working memory. One of them is to use a strategy called ‘chunking’, which can immediately upgrade the number of digits you can store by ‘compressing’ the information.

You do this simply by remembering larger numbers that can later be ‘unpacked’ to form smaller numbers. For example:

“1,9,6,2 ,2,3,19,30,31”

Can become:

“19,622,319,30,3031”

You are now remembering fewer numbers but those numbers contain all the digits for a longer sequence. Like a zip file for your brain! Of course, there are other ways you can condense information too. Derren Brown in his book Trick of the Mind recommends storing numbers as words – potentially allowing you to visualize them as a single picture or even to make a story.

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This should have been the first clue that the old notion of working memory wasn’t quite right. If it’s a phonological loop, then why should semantic chunking make any different?

Anyway…

The other way to train working memory, according to the old school of thinking, is to simply practice using it. Good old SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands – the same notion that reigns supreme in bodybuilding) means that brain plasticity will strengthen the processes needed for that skill.

The most studied method of improving working memory through training is called ‘Dual N-Back’ training. This involves carefully watching two sequences of random stimuli and looking for repetitions ‘N’ number of spaces back. ‘N’ here is the variable that defines how far the distance is between the repetitions that you’re looking for; how many ‘back’.

So, if N = 1 (which it will to begin with) then you would register this following sequence as being a ‘hit’:

“1, 3, 8, 1, 203, 2, 19, 21, 5, 5

Because the number ‘5’ has repeated twice, one back.

If N = 3 though, then you would register the following sequence as a hit:

“1, 3, 8, 203, 2, 19, 21, 5, 5, 21

Because here, 21 has repeated and was the same three back.

Only in dual N-back training, you are watching for two different stimuli simultaneously. For example, the numbers might be different colours and so you would also register a hit if the colour was repeated N spaces back.

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Over time, this kind of training is proven to improve working memory and to have transferrable results that boost performance in IQ tests.

The only problem with this kind of training is that it is incredibly dull. I’ve tried to engage in this activity but it is simply mind numbing. Fortunately, a number of other activities and games can also train the same part of the brain.

In particular, chess has been proven effective (2) because it requires the player to hold plans for future moves in their mind and to predict several spaces ahead. Although there’s no data on it, I would say that playing Rummikub probably does this even more effectively (and it’s a great game!). Playing memory pairs would also use the working memory.

The Truth About Working Memory

This is all fairly interesting, but dull. As I said, I never saw the appeal of doing hours of dual n-back training just so that I could remember slightly longer phone numbers.

And moreover, the idea of working memory being split into three convenient stores never sat easily with me. In fact, I’m surprised that the scientific community ever put so much stock in theories that involve separating aspects of cognition into neat, arbitrary boxes. The episodic buffer was added to Baddeley and Hitch’s model in 2000 – so this isn’t old stuff.

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It’s almost as bad as Gardener’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ (which include nonsensical and purely arbitrary options like ‘musical intelligence’ and ‘naturalistic intelligence’). The brain doesn’t work like that!

And from a purely subjective viewpoint, I would argue that working memory has never felt like memory. It appears to work differently. It requires concentration and it takes so many different forms.

Fortunately, neuroscience has shed a little light on what might actually be going on here.

And the answer is that working memory in reality appears to work much more like visualization. In fact, I would go as far as to say that working memory is visualization.

When you use your working memory, all you are doing is imagining or retrieving information and according to imaging studies, you do this by stimulating the relevant areas of the brain. When you use your visual working memory, you do so by stimulating areas of the brain related to visual and spatial stimuli (the occipital lobe and the motor cortex perhaps). When you use your phonological loop, you are using your auditory cortex and stimulating it as though you were really hearing those numbers being said.

Moreover, I bet that areas of the motor cortex are also firing – as though your lips were moving to say them…

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When you remember numbers, you are creating representations of that data in the same part of the brain used for any number crunching (3).

Your working memory capacity is then limited by however much of this stimulation you can maintain. And that is all to do with attention control – the role of the prefrontal cortex is to increase the apparent salience to help us concentrate on that information.

In terms of the way we use our working memory, it is much more useful to think of it in terms of a ‘workspace’ that lets us hold representations of data, memories, experiences and stimuli so that they can be manipulated to form new ideas or to help us make predictions and find solutions to problems.

In terms of the actual biology, it is best to think of it as ghostly impressions within our neural networks that allow us to rehearse, to visualize, to imagine and to calculate.

It’s not a million miles from Baddeley and Hitch’s version to be honest. The PFC is the ‘central executive’, which directs our attention to the light stimulation we are creating in various brain regions – including those relevant to acoustic information and visuo-spatial information. Only it goes deeper than that.

At least this is my interpretation of the new research…

Working Memory is Not Memory At All

So, working memory is not memory at all. Rather it is what we think of typically as visualization, which can include all kinds of sensory information, as well as semantics and abstract concepts. This might be why n-back training has been demonstrated to improve visuospatial intelligence (4).

Our ability to utilize this skill meanwhile, essentially comes down to our ability to concentrate and to hold our attention on specific things. This also explains why working memory training seems to thicken connectivity throughout the brain (5) and why it is so closely linked with attentional control (6, 7).

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And if you want to get really deep, then you could even say that this is the essential basis for all thinking. After all, embodied cognition suggests that we understand language in the same way – by visualizing the sensations and experiences that give words meaning. This is a form of abstraction that is layered on top of our working memory capacity for manipulating ideas.

All this also means that to strengthen working memory is to strengthen your very ability to hold and manipulate information. This is how you take outside stimuli and internalize it in order to manipulate it and to make predictions and know how best to act next.

Being able to visualize the position of other players on a football pitch for example can make you a better football player. This is entirely down to working memory.

Being able to hold multiple different moves in your mind makes you better at chess too, which is down to working memory.

Being able to quickly process what someone has said and then change that information in order to give a witty response will make you seem wittier and sharper. Working memory.

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And then there are the obvious benefits like maths and like programming. And like being able to multitask quickly – switching tasks while keeping data from each stored.

So, working memory can make you better at everything from productivity, to sports, to social interactions. Probably even creativity! So much for dull…

How to Boost Your Intelligence and Performance

So, how does all this new information impact on the way you should go about training your working memory?

Well, I would say that you should carry on with the conventional training but stay away from the mega boring n-back. Play rummikub on your phone if you want a quick fix. And play chess!

You can also try playing the free Android game I created specifically to train working memory and abstract thinking. It’s called Debugger: Brain Untraining and it can be found here. My objective was to create a game that you played entire ‘in your head’ and simply used the inputs to execute your plans.

brain untraining

The game is also designed to be tough as nails and give you zero instruction as to what’s going on… Have fun!

My other advice is to practice enhancing your attentional control. And there is no better way to do this than through meditation (8). And it is probably no coincidence that meditation practice also appears to increase connectivity and cortical thickness in just the same way as dual n-back (9).

All meditation is, is practiced attention control. It is removing distractions and taking conscious control over where your attention goes. This is the skill we need to develop working memory.

Other activities will also work here but only so long as you are using the dorsal attention network (intentional) rather than the ventral attention network (unintentional). When you play a video game, you are required to concentrate but too often this is pure reflex thanks to all the lights, colours and sounds that are designed specifically to trigger the dopaminergic systems.

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I also recommend training your visualization skills. Visualization in general is a very useful tool and it’s something that can be practiced just like any other ability. I recently wrote a post on how you could use ‘cognitive visualization training’ in order to strengthen your working memory.

And just be mindful of how you are using your working memory in everyday life. Understand this and you can start bringing it into play more often, thereby strengthening it ‘passively’ as you go.

I think there is more to be done in this area but this is heading along the right lines. Once we crack it, I think this might be the closest thing to a Limitless style brain upgrade going.

limitless

(Speaking of which, there are nootropics – Semax and PRL-853 – which apparently can boost working memory to a significant degree. I think both carry significant risks though and I haven’t looked into them personally. I might post about these in future, as unravelling their mechanisms of action might help us understand other ways to boost WM. Stay tuned!)

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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.
  • http://comohacerplatafacil.com Jorge

    Good article Adam

    • thebioneer

      Thanks a lot 😀

  • Reagan Ralph

    Great article, if you dont believe in multiple intelligence then what do you think defines intelligence?

    • thebioneer

      Thanks 😀 You’ll find my answer in this post: http://www.thebioneer.com/neuroscience-of-increasing-intelligence/

      The tl;dr version is ‘plasticity + experience’, which should lead to greater whole brain connectivity. Do you have a theory yourself? Really interested in embodied cognition at the moment too. Thanks for reading!

      • Reagan Ralph

        Same here myself, well i always kinda went with the multiple intelligence theory but after reading your article, you have change my mind. I have recently been looking up neurology, like how our bodies react to pain in our anterior cingulate cortex just for example but thanks for all the these article’s, they have help with learning more about the human brain, fitness and martial arts. :)