Improve working memory

People are generally able to remember a nearly infinite number of facts, but yet only a handful of items at a given time. This is due to the difference between long term memory, where we store information almost indefinitely but with a reduced speed (and chance in the longer term) of recall, and working memory, which is the ability to actively hold information in the mind for up to 20-30 seconds. This is the reason why a person might forget to buy an item or two on a mental grocery list, and why most people have difficulty adding together large numbers.

In fact, working memory could be the basis for general intelligence and reasoning: Those who can hold many items in their mind may be well equipped to consider different angles of a complex problem simultaneously. If psychologists could help people expand their working-memory capacity or make it function more efficiently, everyone could benefit

Many psychologists have long argued that working memory has a set limit of about four items, and that individual differences in working memory arise from the ability to group small bits of information into larger chunks. However, new research suggests that working-memory capacity can be expanded with practice.

Simply using your working memory, which you do continually throughout the day anyway, doesn’t improve it any more than lifting a cup of coffee to drink it makes your arms stronger.  In order to build up your biceps you need to put them through focused and intense workouts, gradually increasing the resistance.  The situation is exactly the same with your working memory.

N-Back Training

The N-back test has been shown to increase working memory, and unlike other working memory tests, the improvement in results seem to transfer to other types of intelligence test. So the exercise really improves working memory, and not just your skill at completing the specific exercise.

In the simplest version of the test you are presented with a series of numbers one after another, and you have to identify when the current number is identical to one that was already presented a certain number (n) of items ago in the series. So let’s say you were presented with this series:

1, 4, 3, 3, 6, 2, 5, 6

The second time you saw the number ‘3’ you would say it appeared one step ago (1-back), the second time you saw the number ‘6’ you would say it appeared 3 steps ago (3-back). Now this might not look too tricky, but when these numbers are presented one at time most people find the 3-back condition to be challenging.

As you would expect, for more complicated and more difficult versions of the n-back test, larger increases in working memory and intelligence scores are seen.

An advanced version of the n-back task might involve; instead of seeing a single series of items like the one above, two different sequences, one of single letters and one of spatial locations being presented at the same time. You would then have to identify ‘n-back’ repetitions of both letters and locations, a task that requires simultaneously keeping track of both sequences.
If you would like to give the n-back test a go, and improve your working memory you can download a version of the test here.


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