Working Memory Training. Does It Work?

What is working memory?

 

 

Working memory is a short-term memory and attention focus system –  your ‘mental workspace’.  It can be defined as a brain system that keeps information in mind temporarily while using it to think something through, make a decision, pursue a goal or comprehend something. It involves a pre-frontal – parietal brain circuit called the cognitive control network.

Working memory is necessary for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions,  keeping you updated and aware of what is going on in this process, and applying relevant thinking strategies to process the information.

Working memory deficits result in loss of attentional focus (e.g. difficulty keeping track while reading a text), or memory problems such as forgetting what to do in the few seconds of walking from one room to the another, or being easily distracted while trying to focus on a task and not being able to finish an activity according to plan.

In general the larger your working memory capacity (mental workspace) the better your focus, self-control, problem solving and comprehension. There is a strong correlation between working memory and IQ as well as emotion regulation.

 

What is working memory training?

dual n-back brain training

Working memory training (WM) is currently the most scientifically credible, effective brain training that is available. The aim of all working memory training programs is to expand working memory capacity.

The most widely studied brain training exercise targeting WM capacity is the dual n-back. This game involves viewing a continuous stream of both visual and audio items and deciding whether each item matches the stimulus presented n stimuli back. In the example shown here, the 2-back matches (targets) are shown.

 

Known benefits of working memory training

Working memory training has clear long-term neuroplasticity effects in brain regions involved in attention, executive function and intelligence, such as changes in the density of cortical dopamine D1 receptors (1, 2, 3)

There are many scientific studies demonstrating that WM training results in improvements in a range of important cognitive skills as well as improved cognitive function in clinical populations with known WM deficiencies. (1)

“The results of individual studies encourage optimism regarding the value of WM training as a tool for general cognitive enhancement. …Studies of core training show improvements in a variety of areas of cognition… Core WM training thus represents a favourable approach to achieve broad cognitive enhancement.” (Morrison & Chein, 2011, p. 34).

Working memory training has been shown in replicated studies and meta-reviews to result in the following brain benefits. Such benefits are often found for both younger and older benefits, indicating that neuroplasticity effects from training are not restricted to younger brains.

 

  • Fluid intelligence (IQ) – i.e. abstract reasoning and problem-solving abilities
  • Improvements in both verbal and visuospatial working memory (1)
  • Improvements in executive attention control such as multi-tasking in both younger and older adults (1, 2).
  • Memory for personal experiences (1,2)
  • Reduced symptoms of ADHD and learning disabilities, for children and adults (1, 2)

 

Working memory training and IQ

HighIQPro  is based on cutting edge developments in ‘n-back training’.

The effectiveness of the dual n-back for increasing IQ was brought into the spotlight by Dr. Susanne Jaeggi and her group at the University of Michigan  in a seminal PNAS paper in 2008: Improving Fluid Intelligence By Training On Working Memory. Their results led prominent IQ researchers to the conclusion:

Increasing intelligence is possible after all …with more training leading to greater gains …across the spectrum of abilities. …Almost 40 years ago, Jensen claimed that, when all is said and done, there is not much one can do to raise people’s IQs. Jaeggi and her colleagues have made an important contribution… by showing that intelligence is trainable to a significant and meaningful degree.

Robert Sternberg, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Indiana University

The latest meta-review of all 24 dual n-back studies found a significant IQ increase from training and concludes:

“We urge that future studies move beyond attempts to answer the simple question of whether or not there is transfer [from dual n-back training to increases in IQ] and, instead, seek to explore the nature and extent of how these improved test scores may reflect true improvements in intelligence that can translate into practical, real-world settings.”

Jacky Au and colleagues, University of California, 2014 

HighIQPro  is designed to optimize the parameters of n-back training that result in the greatest IQ gains. An example of this is interference control which has been demonstrated in functional brain imaging studies (Ref 1, Ref 2) to be the mediating link between working memory and fluid intelligence.

 

Interference control training & IQ

One strong candidate parameter for optimizing dual n-back training that I have been particularly interested in is interference control.

Interference is a technical term for distracting information that is similar to the information you need to perform well in a game or cognitive challenge.

There is good scientific evidence that interference control – the ability to filter out distracting information of this sort – underlies the link between working memory and intelligence.

 

 

Based on the strong role of interference control in linking IQ with working memory capacity, interference training is now built into HighIQPro as a default. Building interference control into the dual n-back game is something new, and for this reason I call it ‘second generation’ (2G) dual n-back training. Based on user feedback and our pilot data for IQ gains I am confident interference control training is critical for optimizing IQ training gains.

 

References

Chein, J., & Morrison, A. (2010). Expanding the mind’s workspace: Training and transfer effects with a complex working memory span task. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(2), 193–199.

Morrison, A.B. & Chein, J.M. (2011). Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(1), 46-60.

I am a cognitive scientist with a joint Ph.D in cognitive psychology and neuroscience from the Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition (Carnegie Mellon/Pittsburgh). At IQ Mindware we develop brain training interventions to increase IQ, critical thinking, decision making, creativity and executive functioning.