Constrained by the brain

In June of 2006, nineteen-year-old Chris Tonelli from Cleveland, Oh., was afraid of operating the cash register at the concession stand where he worked during the summer. Normally a very outgoing and likable personality, he shrank from this seemingly simple task because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep track of the correct change each customer was owed. Somehow, in the seconds it took him to open the register drawer, the details of each transaction would slip away, leaving him to awkwardly fumble with the money as the customer’s patience expired.

This wasn’t the first time that Chris had been held back by his inability to focus. Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, school had constantly been a struggle for him. He couldn’t keep track of the teacher’s instructions and it took him much longer to complete assignments and tests. His problem wasn’t lack of effort. In fact, he was a highly regarded hockey player with excellent work ethic. The real barrier was something else.

In just a few short weeks, Chris’ life was about to change dramatically. His physician recommended he try a new cognitive training program that was just beginning to be accepted as an intervention for attention problems. The program was based on a concept called “working memory training” and followed a wave of scientific research that was turning heads in the fields of medicine and psychology. Working memory is the cognitive skill that allows us to hold and process information for brief periods of time. It’s a simple concept but it’s hugely significant in daily life and mounting evidence shows it to be the basis for learning, reasoning and planning.

For Chris, the goal was to rigorously exercise the part of his brain that was supposed to keep him focused on the task at hand and help him reason quickly under pressure. The idea seemed like a long shot but he had nothing to lose. He threw all his effort into the training. And soon he found himself able to focus more clearly, as if the world around him had slowed down. At the concession stand, he began to handle multiple orders without missing a beat. His bosses were astounded at the turnaround. He felt as if a great barrier had been removed from his mind and his confidence soared.

Chris wasn’t the first to see these life-altering changes and he isn’t the last. Today, thousands of children and adults around the world have also unlocked their potential by improving working memory. Some, like Chris, were born with deficits in working memory, including those with ADHD and other learning disabilities. Others acquired deficits through stroke or the normal process of aging. Still others were held back simply because of the hectic and demanding environment in which they struggled to focus.

Today, hundreds of experts in the fields of medicine and psychology are embracing working memory training. They’ve brought the breakthrough approach into practices and schools around the world and are helping people of all ages succeed in areas of their lives that were once constrained by poor working memory. Researchers at top universities are confirming the effectiveness of the approach and exploring new applications for working memory training, examining its powerful impact on a range of populations such as children who have undergone chemotherapy and victims of traumatic brain injury. Together, these researchers and medical professionals are redefining the way we prepare for success in the classroom, on the sports field, in the office and beyond.