January 10, 2023
Part three of our video series on working memory covers the basics of working memory training. Can it be done, and if so, how?
This is part three of a four part series:
For a long time the consensus in science was that the maximum capacity of your working memory was fixed - genetically hard coded, and impossible to influence. This was disconcerting since working memory is such an important foundation for many cognitive abilities. If it was in fact non-malleable, this would mean that many people are destined to live their lives with a disabling low capacity to focus, learn and get things done..
Since then a vast body of research has shown that the brain is more plastic than what was originally thought. It is indeed possible to expand your working memory capacity, and thereby increase your cognitive abilities! This is excellent news.
However, increasing your working memory requires some serious effort on your part. Like any other training it only has a positive effect if you really expend effort, and you keep pushing yourself to the level where it starts to feel uncomfortable.
Think about lifting weights in order to increase your strength, for example. To make sure you are working at a capacity that will build muscle you need to find an appropriate load - often defined as a weight you can lift at least four times, but no more than 12, and then adjusting to a heavier load whenever you pass that upper limit. If you keep up your training habit, your muscle mass and strength will increase over time.
But what would be the equivalent of carefully selecting the right weights when you are exercising your working memory? For that you need something that will challenge you with progressively harder mental tasks, until you reach your limit. Something that keeps coming up with new and different tasks in order to continuously challenge your working memory.
All experiments where working memory training has been shown to have an effect are carried out using a computer program: a software that feeds you increasingly difficult working memory dependent tasks, keeps track of your progress and dynamically adjusts the level of difficulty and types of exercises, making sure you’re always training at the optimal level of effort. The most widely used and scientifically validated such program includes 25-50 minutes of dedicated practice per day, 3-5 days a week, for five to thirteen weeks.
Here we gave a normal distribution curve showing WM capacity in the population. By training your working memory using this kind of program a typical user increases their working memory capacity by about 0.7 standard deviations, an increase illustrated by the darker lines on this normal distribution curve.
Spoiler: this program is the Cogmed Working Memory Training!
So, Working Memory capacity can be improved, and by training you could, as implied by this chart, overtake a larger percentage of your peers. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s easy to do so.
Let’s go back to our strength-training example. When it comes to strength training, most people agree on the following: muscle strength is largely heritable. If your parents are stronger than the average person, then it is likely that you will be too. Additionally, muscle strength is malleable, subject to training. Regardless of your starting level, If you repeatedly expend effort, contracting your muscles with sufficient resistance, they will gain in capacity. But this doesn’t happen overnight, it requires repeated high effort over an extended period of time.
And the same two things are true for your working memory. Your innate capacity will depend on your genetics But, even though your working memory is heritable, it is also malleable, and if you push yourself close to your limit, over an extended period of time - you can increase its capacity.
Research shows that what’s true for muscles also happens to be true for Working Memory:
Hard and consistent effort leads to results.
Assembling neurons since 2002