How Do We Improve Our Working Memory?




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Our working memory refers to the ability to recall as well as process information, and is a type of memory that plays an important role throughout the course of our life. As such, it is evident that boosting working memory would improve various aspects of our lives, running the spectrum from our days in school to work life and even stretching to our post-retirement years.

By today’s standards, there is unfortunately no clear “best” way to improve our working memory. There is a silver lining though – a few methods have actually shown potentially promising results in enhancing our cognitive performance in this aspect. These include:

  • training the brain
  • taking medications
  • stimulating the brain.

Training our brains

Training the brain has been advocated as an effective way to improve our cognitive function. This is typically carried out via a series of computerized tests that are administered on a regular basis. An example of brain training is so-called core training, which generally requires the participant to perform repetitions of demanding memory tasks, in order to target mechanisms involved in the development and/or consolidation of working memory.

Some principles in these learning paradigms include minimizing automation, placing encoding and retrieval demands on working memory, as well as ensuring a high cognitive workload for participants.

In addition, there is often a focus on frequently refreshing one’s memory in conjunction with sequential processing-related tasks. Though not unequivocal, studies have shown some degree of post-training cognitive improvements, suggesting that training the brain in our own time could in fact have similar effects too.

Using medications to improve brain function

Strange though it may seem, medications used in managing psychiatric disorders are often able to improve performance of healthy people. For instance, stimulants such as Adderall ,which are primarily prescribed for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have been used for enhancing cognitive performance.

The effects of such drugs on the catecholamine system implies that the executive functions of those who consume them would be increased. As a result, this leads to an improvement in the ability to process information stored in working memory and also focus the attention on a task at hand. However, the safety and efficacy of such drugs when administered to improve cognition in healthy individuals is not well established.

Brain stimulation and cognition improvement

Non-invasive stimulation of brain areas could possbily enhance working memory performance as well. For instance, scientists have tried applying transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to a brain region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is involved in holding items in working memory and the study found that such stimulation may be able to improve working memory, though the findings were not conclusive. More importantly, the aforementioned findings would suggest that there could be novel and safe ways to enhance cognition waiting to be discovered.

Case study: does the way we run affect our working memory?

A recent study showed for the first time that even how we run could affect our cognitive performance: running barefoot was reported to improve working memory performance when compared with running while wearing shoes. In particular, the critical importance of working memory as a cognitive skill means that the findings described here could feasibly provide a light-hearted and relaxing way for people to improve their working memory.

This study involved a total of 72 volunteers whose ages ranged from 18 to 44. The participants ran for approximately 16 minutes under both barefoot conditions as well as when they were wearing shoes. The speed of the run was at a self-selected pace comfortable for each individual and a measurement of working memory was carried out prior to and after the run.

Amazingly, there was a significant increase of approximately 16 percent in working memory performance for the condition in which the participants ran barefoot. In contrast, no significant changes in working memory were observed when participants took part in the run while wearing shoes. Similarly, the heart rate and running speed of the volunteers were not reported to have any significant effect on their working memory performance.

Notably, when we are running barefoot, we frequently have to avoid accidentally stepping on objects that could potentially hurt out feet. This leads to us generally monitoring our foot placement more to ensure greater precision of where we step. Hence, in order to simulate outdoors barefoot running, the volunteers in the study had to step on flat objects while they were running. In this regard, it would then be logical to surmise that the barefoot condition required more intensive demands on working memory in view of the increased tactile requirements of running barefoot as compared to running with shoes. This would in turn account for the gains in working memory concluded from the findings.

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Taken together, many challenges remain in this particular line of research in learning and memory given that our working memory is not one simple process under the control of a single brain region. As such, it is important to understand that research on enhancing working memory remains controversial as a large part pertains to whether these methods improve intelligence in general or a set of selected cognitive functions.

Furthermore, there is always the concern of any potential health and ethical issues related to such modifications, implying that there would be lots of red tape in the foreseeable future for breakthroughs in this field. Nevertheless, this remains an exciting and dynamic area of study that is sure to intrigue many for generations to come given the numerous changes and benefits it could well bring about to people.

References

Alloway, R., Alloway, T., Magyari, P., & Floyd, S. (2016). An Exploratory Study Investigating the Effects of Barefoot Running on Working Memory Perceptual and Motor Skills, 122 (2), 432-443 DOI: 10.1177/0031512516640391

Greely, H., Sahakian, B., Harris, J., Kessler, R., Gazzaniga, M., Campbell, P., & Farah, M. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy Nature, 456 (7223), 702-705 DOI: 10.1038/456702a

Morrison, A., & Chein, J. (2010). Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18 (1), 46-60 DOI: 10.3758/s13423-010-0034-0

Mulquiney, P., Hoy, K., Daskalakis, Z., & Fitzgerald, P. (2011). Improving working memory: Exploring the effect of transcranial random noise stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex Clinical Neurophysiology, 122 (12), 2384-2389 DOI: 10.1016/j.clinph.2011.05.009

Image via jeonsango / Pixabay.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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