Working Memory – Why It’s Important and How To Improve It

by Stephen Mills on June 26, 2010

“Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for keeping information online, manipulating it, and using it in your thinking. It is the way that you delegate the things you encounter to the parts of our brain that can take action. In this way, working memory is necessary for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping you updated and aware about what’s going on around you.” – Cogmed

What if there was one feature of your brain that was critical to:

  • Your ability to control your attention?
  • Your ability to concentrate in the face of distractions?
  • Your ability to multi-task?
  • Your general reasoning ability?
  • Your ability to learn and comprehend what you read?
  • Your overall performance on measures of intelligence?

Further, what if it is possible to improve the performance of that one feature and consequently improve all those other abilities that are dependent upon it?  There has recently been some tantalizing new evidence that working memory is that key feature and that in can be improved with training.

“At present, working memory capacity is the best predictor for intelligence that has yet been derived from theories and research on human cognition.” — Heinz-Martin Süß

I find it an intriguing possibility that we may be able to increase general working memory ability.   Historically it has been believed that working memory and fluid intelligence are fixed abilities that can’t be improved.  Even worse, tests unambiguously show that these abilities actually decline with age; something that affects virtually all of us that live long enough.  Your working memory and fluid intelligence peak at around age 25 and working memory declines significantly by age 50.

In 2010 a panel convened by the NIH reviewed the studies and literature available and concluded that cognitive training was the only method that had clearly been demonstrated to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in aging.

There have been numerous studies on whether practicing mental tasks might improve mental abilities.  While practicing a certain mental task usually shows an improvement in the performance of that particular task, there is seldom any transference to other abilities or to any kind of general ability.  That may be changing with some recent evidence on working memory training.

Simply using your working memory, which you do continually, doesn’t improve it any more than simply lifting a beer bottle to your lips is going to make your biceps stronger.  That requires focused and intense workouts with gradually increasing resistance.  So it goes with your working memory.  You don’t get something for nothing.  You have to work at it.  The more you work at it, the greater your improvement.  For me however, it is an investment that pays huge dividends and is more than worth the effort.

How to Improve Your Working Memory

What follows is the best information I have found on improving your working memory.

Dual N-Back Training

A study on dual N-back training garnered huge publicity a couple of years ago and may be the most effective training available for the improvement working memory.  In dual N-back training, you simultaneously keep track of the the locations of an object on the screen and the sequence of auditory letter sounds.  As you train, you progressively get better at holding more instances of both in working memory at the same time.  It is a very intense mental workout.   There is a free download called Brain Workshop that is based on the study is very well done.  I highly recommend it and use it myself.  It also has the option of triple, quadruple, and quintuple N-Back training.  I have been able to verify that using N-Back training has improved my working memory performance on working memory tests.  I know this anecdotal, but I have attempted to verify the improvement in the most objective way I can.  Here is an article in Wired about the N-back study: Forget Brain Age: Researchers Develop Software That Makes You Smarter

Chess

Chess may be another activity that stretches your working memory capacity.  As you play out move sequences in your mind, you must maintain them in working memory as you analyze the various options.  In one study of older people, chess was the single activity most predictive for a reduction in the risk of mental decline.

Reading

In order to comprehend what you read, you must maintain the beginning of the sentence in memory as you read through to the end of the sentence.  The more complex the material, the higher the load it puts on your working memory.

Dopamine

The drug Ritalin is often used by college students and I believe has been shown to improve working memory.  Instead of Ritalin, try increasing your brain’s dopamine levels by more natural or safer means.  Take L-Tyrosine and/or DL-Phenylalanine supplements to increase the levels of dopamine in your brain.  These are natural amino acids.   I recommend from 1.5 grams to 6 grams daily of each divided into three doses taken between meals.  These foods are also good sources.

  • Wild game
  • Cottage cheese
  • Chicken
  • Duck
  • Ricotta
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Wheat germ
  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans
  • Dark chocolate
  • Granola
  • Milk
  • Egg
  • Yogurt
  • Oats
  • Sausage meat
  • Low-fat cheese

Exercise

Exercise is such a proven benefit to brain health, it’s hard to believe it doesn’t help maintain the parts of the brain involved in working memory.  Even if it doesn’t, it helps other aspects of brain function so it should be a part of any program.

The best book I’ve read on the subject of working memory is The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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8 Ways to Improve Your Focus and Control Your Attention
October 25, 2010 at 6:49 am

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Positively Present June 27, 2010 at 7:42 am

Very cool topic, Stephen! I’ve never heard of working memory before!

Reply

Dare June 27, 2010 at 7:53 am

Lumosity.com also offers some good games of this type, I’ve been practicing them for 2 months just found them boring afterwards. I guess I should try chess.

Reply

Nea | Self Improvement Saga June 27, 2010 at 9:06 pm

I’m pretty sure my working memory is declining. I’m 33, but I can definitely tell a difference. I’m so glad you shared this article and included links where I can get more info. When I’m bored at work, I’ll try out dual N back training instead of twiddling my thumbs. Super, super topic Stephen. I can’t wait to find out more.
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Joshua Noerr July 2, 2010 at 8:26 am

I have written several times about improving memory. There are several games available to make it easier.

The only think I would add to your food list is a fish oil supplement. Fish is truly brain food. Omega 3 fatty acids are extremely beneficial to strong brain function, and they have numerous additional benefits to the body.

Reply

Miranda Cruz July 2, 2010 at 10:06 am

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of working memory. It’s a really interesting topic.

Reply

Art August 26, 2010 at 2:46 pm

What about Sudoku? It can take quite a bit of brainpower, and you need to hold a lot in memory to make comparisons and see patterns? I have no evidence, but it seems to me that it should help. So, I do several Sudoku puzzles a day.

However, in another of your articles (pt I or II of the working memory posts, I think) you mention that you shouldn’t “waste” your brainpower on unnecessary thinking. Is that time sensitive, as in, don’t do a Sudoku right before you need to do other serious thinking? Or is it anytime?

Reply

Stephen Mills October 28, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Art, I don’t know about Sodoku either but I would assume it helps for the reasons you mention. And there is a difference between thinking that is unnecessary and thinking specifically to improve brain power. Further, yes it is time sensitive. People who exert mental effort actually use more glucose and exhaust neurotransmitters. Time, rest, sleep, and food all help replenish those.

Reply

Sean October 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm

I read an article a while back that has resonated with me. The premise is that a key component of our intelligence may be our ability to filter information. I think you may appreciate this article Stephen.

Cheers

* The article “Your Inner Spam Filter” is here but it is behind a pay-wall unfortunately: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=your-inner-spam-filter

* Found this: http://goo.gl/oCTN

Reply

Stephen Mills October 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Excellent article Sean. Thanks!

Reply

William October 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm

This is the first time I have see working memory

Reply

Stephen Mills October 28, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Hello William thanks for stopping by. I hope it helped. :-) (=

Reply

Stan Rosen May 21, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Stephen,

Being 70 and retired learning the internet and affiliate marketing, your article came in the nick of time. I know your resouces will be very helpful. Thank you so much for dedicating yourself to working memory.

All the best!

Reply

Researching intelligence August 15, 2011 at 11:45 am

What about meditation? I have heard that meditation can improve your working memory too. That’s because concentration recuires mental capacity.

Reply

Grammy June 2, 2012 at 10:25 am

I’m looking for hints to increase working memory with elementary age children or, more specifically, for an 8 yr old.

Thanks.

Reply

Jake August 9, 2012 at 1:17 am

Wow, what a great and helpful article!

Bananas, especially bananas that have entered their “speckled stage”, contain molecular dopamine. They also have one of the highest glycemic index of the fruits while remaining healthy for metabolic disorders. They are truly a “brain food” and can be used for an immediate boost.

Also, in alternative to ritalin or adderall, consider wellbutrin/zyban which increases dopamine levels but is less neurotoxic to the dopamine pathways than the amphetamine based drugs.

Reply

hossein November 21, 2012 at 5:43 am

i dont know why i forget any data i read in long time?

Reply

Gina January 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm

My son scored much lower in working memory than the other sections of his IQ test (which were high to very high). The subject he has the most trouble with is higher math. Does it make sense that his working memory is much of the cause for this problem?

Reply

Rachel February 28, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Yes, in fact people with a greater discrepancy between these scores are considered to potentially have what’s called a nonverbal learning disability.
Here’s the definition from Wikipedia: A nonverbal learning disorder or nonverbal learning disability (NLD or NVLD) is a condition characterized by a significant discrepancy between higher verbal skills and lower motor, visuo-spatial, and social skills on an IQ test.[1]

Reply

Chris March 11, 2013 at 7:12 am

Therebis no evidence these Games do not improve working. Please read the recent work of Randy Engle.

Reply

Chris March 11, 2013 at 7:13 am

Please forgive my typos on my last post. There is no evidence these games work.

Reply

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