Renewed interest in working memory

Interest in working memory went into relative hibernation until a series of breakthroughs in neuroscience dramatically changed what we understood to be the limitations of the brain. With the development of fMRI technology, scientists had a penetrating new lens into the brain by which they could better observe how it works and how it reacts to external and internal influences. One of the critical discoveries was that the brain was plastic, that it actually physically changes and grows in relation to repeated activity. For example, today research has shown that the left inferior parietal cortex is larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual brains. On a more dramatic scale, people have taught their brains to rewire after traumatic accidents that decades ago would have left them with terminal damage.

In 1999, Dr. Torkel Klingberg, then a post-doctoral student at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was inspired by discoveries like these. Having researched working memory for several years, he wanted to see if he could improve working memory through computerized training.

But building a program to train working memory was no small task. To do so, he teamed up with Jonas Beckeman and David Sjolander, programmers with a background in game development for young children. They understood Klingberg’s concept and were especially interested in participating in a project that could help kids with attention problems. Within a few months, they had developed a video-game-like program that was able to engage the user and appeal to his or her sense of competition.

With the computer program in place, Klingberg began a small study to see if working memory capacity could be improved through training. If successful, the study would fundamentally challenge the notion of working memory as a fixed ability.

“I had seen from my research that working memory impacted many different functions” says Klingberg.

We thought that if we could train working memory the
improvements might transfer to many other cognitive
abilities and have a real impact on daily life.”

– Dr Torkel Klingberg