Working Memory: Upgrading Cognitive Processing Power

By on August 31, 2022

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Working memory is the type of memory the human brain uses in order to manipulate data. This is the “visuo-spatial scratchpad” that we use to store numbers when performing sums or writing down phone numbers. It’s also the type of memory we need to remember where all the players are on the pitch, during a game of football.

Working memory

In psychology, we are typically taught the limits of working memory in terms of digits. That is to say that we can store 7 +/- 2 units of information. Someone with a very good working memory, therefore, can hold onto a number 9 digits long. Someone with a poor working memory could store 5 digits.

Why Working Memory is CRITICAL for Performance

But this is a very limiting way to think about working memory. Because, truly, we use working memory across all sensory domains. As I already mentioned, for example, we need working memory to remember the positions of our team-mates on the pitch when we are running toward the goal with a football.

In terms of visual representations, it’s generally agreed that we can visualize 3-4 simple items with near perfect accuracy, but that steep drop-offs occur after that point (reference).

Likewise, our working memory allows us to recall what someone has just said to us, while we come up with a response.

Cognitive Processing

But beyond that, working memory is actually what allows us to perceive the world at all. Here’s the thing: the amount of information coming in through our senses at any given time is astronomical. And, indeed, it is far too much for us to compute. You don’thttps://www.thebioneer.com/age-like-batman/ see everything in your field of view, but instead you dart your eyes around to take a look at specific things of note in your environment. You then build a representation of your surroundings in your mind’s eye like a patchwork: using assumptions, schemas, and long-term memories to fill in the gaps.

You feel like you see the world as a photograph, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. You don’t see the field in front of you. Rather, you see a visual representation of that field, which is stitched together by a few snapshots and held in your mind’s eye – held in your working memory (study).

train working memory

If you’re having trouble understanding this, think of dreaming. When you dream, you create entire worlds and manipulate them entirely within your working memory. This is why things may seem “hazy.” It’s why there are gaps in your memory. And it’s why the time might change when you look at a clock, look away, then look back.

See also: Working Memory and Movement – Why Can’t You Run Fast in Dreams?

Unlike waking life, our dream worlds have no objective reality to draw upon.

In fact, working memory may even be a critical component of consciousness itself. Afterall, our working memory is what we experience (reference). And when you see something and then remember something related, that memory will get pulled into your working memory, too.

The Truth

This tells us quite a few things about the human brain and working memory.

First: working memory has a capacity far greater than 7 +/- 2 and is multi-modal/multisensory in nature. In fact, describing it this way is completely trite.

Second: our very perception of the world is determined by this type of memory. A working memory deficit would mean you perceived less at any given time; creating a less-rich experience of the world. It would mean you had less information to process.

information processing

And because working memory affects every sense, it directly correlates with improved performance across the board. For example: working memory is closely tied to skill acquisition and movement, as it is what allows us to focus on multiple body parts at once (via proprioceptors) and remember a sequence of instructions. It lets us imagine our body in space more completely (study).

Working memory is also important for task switching. If we want to work on two things at once, we need our working memory to hold on to that information temporarily so that we aren’t completely lost when we return.

Juggling working memory

We “task switch” all the time without knowing it: such as when we stop to think about something someone has said, then must continue the conversation without completely losing the thread. Guilty.

We know that there are individual differences in working memory. These are “highly stable over time” and can be considered “core cognitive traits” of an individual (study).

See also: How to Train Reflexes, Focus, and Decision Making

The good news is that we can probably train our working memories. And, conversely, this could result in greater information processing. Increased reflexes and awareness. Overall: more brain power.

Specifically, it seems that it is the ability to maintain attentional control over the working memory store, that is the “bottleneck” for most. Likewise, the ability to “disengage” from irrelevant information.

But to do this, we need to think bigger. Using Dual N-Back training to increase our storage for numbers is a very limited approach, indeed.

It Goes Beyond Storage

Because capacity is just one measure of working memory. How many digits you can store is just one concern.

Another is how robust that working memory is. How persistent.

We need to know how long we can store that information for, and how persistent that information is in the face of distraction.

Likewise: how easily can we change the content of that storage? Task switching is, very likely, dependent on our ability to switch our attention from one thing to the next. I seem to get “stuck” focussing on one thing.

VR Bullets

This has been a personal epiphany for me. I have always been the “absent minded professor” type. I’ve always been forgetful, distractable, and in my own head. I often say that I can be clever… but slowly. It feels like my brain takes ages to whir into action. I can be witty in conversation if I’m in the flow. But if someone says hi to me in the street – pulling me out of a daydream – I’m all over the place.

My wife goes crazy when I operate the TV because I usually stare at the screen for an entire minute before loading Netflix when we needed BBC iPlayer.

Comment if you can relate!

Unsurprisingly, I’m highly un-observant most of the time.

I’m actually in the process of seeking a diagnosis for ADD – a topic for a future video, surely.

To combat this, I’ve tried training with dual N-back. And it has had only limited benefit. Why might this be?

focus eye

Because dual n-back doesn’t train task switching so much as storage.

To be clear: I’m not saying that dual n-back is useless or that you shouldn’t use it. It has been shown to have tangible results and it is CERTAINLY beneficial for focus, if nothing else. It simply does not offer a total, comprehensive solution to brain function or even just working memory. As some seem to believe.

It’s also worth noting that we don’t consciously choose what should occupy our working memories at any given time. Not all the time, anyway. If you hear a loud noise or think of something interesting, your attention will be pulled. This is useful to a degree and we could never manually control our attention at all times…

Do some brains favour some types of content over others? When should we favour information generated from within the brain and when should we favour information from outside of us?

We also need to think about the different modalities of working memory – and how these might cross over.

How Does Working Memory Work?

Before we can begin improving working memory, we should first attempt to understand how it works.

Unfortunately, this is where we immediately run into trouble.

One thing we can generally agree on, is that there is probably not a separate “store” for working memory, or a dedicated brain region. Older descriptions of working memory, with names like “visuo-spatial scratchpad” might lead us to believe such a thing exists. However, now that we consider the scope of what working memory entails, we instead imagine that it is the result of activity across the brain.

As mentioned, your perception of the world is caused by the activity in the brain: brain cells that represent specific experiences become excited. Working memory is likely caused by the ability of neurons to generate persistent activity in the absence of any external stimuli.

Driving working memory

In other words, the activity necessary to maintain information and manipulate it, may well be very similar to the activity that gives rise to objective experiences. Seeing a lamp, neurologically speaking, is very similar to imagining a lamp.

And our ability to make such imaginings persistent, such that we can manipulate them, may well be closely related to our overall ability to direct and maintain attention.

Our ability to ignore external stimuli – to resist “interference” – might also be linked to this ability to sustain attention.

Brain studies appear to confirm both these suspicions: to the extent that the fidelity of a maintained issue is reflected in the quantity of brain activity during working memory tasks (references).

Red Light Therapy

It’s also generally accepted that working memory processes take place predominantly in the prefrontal cortex and may rely on long-term memory representations. We effectively “look up” what an apple looks like when remembering one and then direct our attention so as to keep this image as vivid as possible. This may rely on “reentrant loops” between the frontal and posterior cortical brain areas, along with subcortical structures (reference).

See also: A Journey Into the Human Brain – Everything You Need to Know

The precise brain regions called into play will generally reflect the nature of the given task. This is referred to as the “component-processes view of working memory” and it makes a lot of sense in light of everything we have discussed so far. The benefits of dual n-back and the like can be profound but are limited in scope because they only train some processes.

To return to the imagined lamp, its representation would actually be “dispersed” across multiple brain areas. We don’t just see the lamp, we understand its position in space, we understand what it represents, and we have memories of this lamp and other lamps.

Component Processes Theory of Working Memory

Further supporting this theory is the fact that damage to specific brain regions can impair specific types of working memory. Likewise, we know that our jobs can actually impact our preferred methods for manipulating information. For example: athletes have been shown to use their kinesthetic senses, rather than visual, when rotating 3D objects (study).

To truly enhance the brain, we should focus on not only strengthening the separate areas, but also the connections between those areas: creating a more deeply connected brain with many more ways to retrieve and manipulate information. That means we should be engaging in multiple tasks that include large amounts of processing, in different combinations and formats.

With that said, this is just a theory and a fairly vague one at that. Despite the huge amount of research exploring how all this might work, but we have yet to land on a consensus. For example, it is also possible that working memory is at least partly dependent on “fast Hebbian plasticity” – that is the formation of new neural connections in real-time, perhaps at the scale of milliseconds.

Truly amazing to think that the brain might actually be rewiring itself as we think!

cognitive load

Short-term plasticity may also play a role in supporting the loops that maintain working memory, by increasing the excitability of relevant neurons. Some models go as far as to suggest “activity-silent” working memory, meaning that looping activity would not be needed for information to be maintained.

See also: Post Activation Potentiation vs Post Activation Performance Enhancement – Two Impressive Performance Boosts

Finally, as a sidebar, I wanted to note how the very act of using working memory can actually – most likely – result in new LTM representations. If you daydream about the plot of a movie you want to write and you remember that movie, this is an example of using working memory to create new long-term memory stores.

The same thing could happen when engaging in any type of thought. Indeed, it would seem that it must, or you would not remember thinking about it!

Training

So, given this information, how do we go about training the working memory in a way that will usefully apply to our real lives?

Holding Brain

With a limited understanding of how working memory might work, I believe we are left to take what I call the “black box approach.” That is: without fully understanding the precise mechanisms that might improve working memory, we should instead provide the broad stimulus likely

First: we need to train in a sensory-motor fashion. This is where 3D object tracking apps and games may prove superior as compared with tools like dual n-back – at least for physical performance, situational awareness, and other useful aspects of performance.

In some studies, 3D object tracking tasks have been shown to transfer well to tasks like dual n-back (study) and even passing when playing football (study), though this transfer does not extend to more general skills such as multitasking (study). One very disappointing piece of research found that performance on one 3D object tracking task could not predict performance on another (study).

Brain Training

Suffice to say that more research is needed.

Perhaps the issue is that we are swapping one limited domain of working memory for another. 3D object tracking tools improve something called “visual attention.” This is our ability to build those representations of the real world and store them in our mind’s eye. 3D object tracking is ideal, therefore, for improving what athletics refers to as “sports vision.”

But this is still just one type of working memory. And again, in real life, we actually use our various domains of working memory in tandem.

Juggling could prove useful, therefore. Juggling once again requires that we track objects in 3D space. Only now, we must also consider the positions of our hands and our bodies. We are tracking both visual information AND propriopceptive information. Indeed, juggling has been shown to increase grey matter in brain regions associated with sports vision (study). We could take this further by standing on a balance board.

Juggling on Steps

Even skipping could have working memory benefits, owing to the necessary attention when tracking and timing the movement of the rope (study)!

Better yet, juggling while answering maths problems aloud could be even more valuable. Alternatively, we could count backwards.

By using working memory cross-modally,  we would be training in a manner far more similar to the ways in which working memory works in real life. This is much closer to tracking the position of a ball on a pitch, remembering the positions of players, while also considering tactics.

Better yet, this kind of training will inherently challenge working memory persistence and task switching.

And it’s FUN. That’s the big problem with other working memory challenges – like Dual N-Back – they are extremely not fun.

Just to be clear: this is speculation and hasn’t been tested. It’s something I will be experimenting with going forward.

Skipping for working memory

I Built An App!

Given my new understanding of working memory and my own deficits, I decided to build an app to train myself.

Creating Biomind

The app combines task-switching, multi-modal storage and updating of stored information, and attention.

You can find the app HERE.

Short-Term Wins

Training the working memory can take a lot of time, but there are some easy ways to improve it in the short-term.

For example, working memory, perhaps surprisingly, actually limits working memory performance in task with a demanding cognitive load (study).

This, perhaps, should not be surprising, given the big negative impact that stress has on working memory. If you’ve ever found yourself flustered in a high-pressure situation, this is because stress has a habit of shutting down many brain regions associated with higher-order thinking.

Stressed

This has implications from a design standpoint. Vehicle controls should minimize cognitive load such that they are usable in such high-stakes scenarios.

If you find yourself forgetting a lot and you drink large amounts of coffee… it may be time to cut back.

It also, therefore, follows that meditation could help to improve working memory – and indeed this has been shown to be the case. This makes sense considering that meditation can both

In terms of number storage, we know that “chunking” can help to circumvent limitations. Rather than remembering the following string of numbers: 1,7,9,3,3,4,5,6,7, we instead remember: 179,334,567. Essentially, we are “compressing” the information to store more data, more easily.

working memory and coffee

This can also occur in other ways. Visualization can be a useful tool for organising movement, perhaps for this same reason. Likewise, we can often use schemas, generalizations, assumptions, and long term memory to fill in blanks.

That is to say, that just as memory masters can use mnemonics to improve their long-term storage, so too can we use strategies to better manipulate information.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

3 Comments

  1. alex says:

    On stress and memory- I know of one guy who was involved in a Home Defense shooting and when he called the police was so stressed that he could not recall his own address. I had a relative who got so stressed by life she temporarily wiped 30 years of her life from her memory…. waking up as a teen and seeing how your life turned out is not always fun.

    Is the app going to be Linux compatible?

  2. Adam Trybus says:

    Okay, I’ve downloaded the app – thanks for sharing! Two questions:
    1) how do you get out of the app? I tried hitting escape and it would not work
    2) You mentioned GitHub repo. I’ll be interested in looking under the hood. Can you share the link?

    Cheers!

  3. Dimensional shade says:

    I am immensly hapy you posted this on the blog,and im immensly glad you talked about this topic, i was interested in it ever since i saw you talking about it in the death stroke blog/video,as a martial artist and proffesional loser at math,this helps me out immensely,thanks Bio,i can always count on you to show me cool ideas i woudlnt have learnt about without ya!

    (Sorry for the grammar skills of a 4 year old but im non native english and loves from slovakia)

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