Imagine what you could accomplish if you were a little smarter, a little more alert and a little more focused. You could complete more work in less time, you could earn a higher salary and you could impress people with your charming repartee and quite wit.
The secret to achieving all this might lie with your working memory. On the surface, this seems like a particularly dull and uninteresting aspect of your mental prowess but in reality, it’s actually a critical function that can make you sharper and more adept in countless ways.
In this post, we’ll discover how to improve working memory and why you should!
What is Working Memory?
Your working memory is perhaps easiest to compare to the RAM on a computer - if the hard-drive is the ‘long term memory’. Just like a computer’s RAM, this is the type of memory that’s used as you work. Things are not stored here permanently but rather used to enhance your ability to pay attention, to make important connections and even to make snap decisions.
Say you’re asked to perform a sum in your head. Chances are that there will be some numbers that you need to ‘carry over’ and in order to do this, you need to keep them in the back of your mind while you work on them. You’re not committing these things to your long term memory or even your short term memory – in an hour, you’re not going to remember the numbers – rather you’re just keeping those digits ‘to one side’ while you work on other things. Likewise, working memory is what you use in order to store a phone number that someone tells you, just before you write it down.
Often we think of working memory as being about numbers, which is the reason that we might find it boring. According to many studies, the general capacity of the working memory when used in this regard is around 7 +/-2. That is to say that it is 5 at the lower end or 9 at the upper end.
But viewing working memory purely in this way is limiting. Because actually, working memory can also be visual, it can also be acoustic and it can even be semantic. Numbers aren’t the only thing that you’re required to hold in your RAM – sometimes you’ll need to remember the position of an object (or several objects) and sometimes you need to remember a name or a word.
The first example – visualization – is controlled by an aspect of working memory that we call the ‘visuo-spatial scratch pad’. Think of this like you’re brain’s very own Etch-a-sketch, which can hold an image for a short period of time. The acoustic aspect is controlled by the ‘phonological loop’ – the part of the brain that we use to ‘play back’ sounds and words.
Likewise, there are probably other forms that your working memory can take and many more ways in which it can be used. We also know that it is very closely linked with attention and the ability to focus and concentrate on a single task.
For all these reasons, improving working memory appears to be closely correlated with improved fluid intelligence (IQ). It can make you appear more alert and focused, while helping you to remember things people say to you and to juggle information in your mind as you work out solutions.
How to Improve Working Memory
So, that’s why you should work on improving your working memory. The next question is what ways are there to do that?
The most popular option is something called ‘Dual N-Back’ training. There are several programs and tools designed for this and these are among the most popular working memory exercises there are.
The way this works is fairly simple. The trainee is shown two series of different quality. This might mean a series of random numbers alongside a series of random words. You might see the numbers flash up and hear a word being spoken at the same time. Alternatively, you might see numbers flash up in different colors.
Your job is then to identify when you see one of these stimuli repeat themselves – if you see the same number appear twice, or hear the same word spoken twice. The catch is that you’re only trying to identify when this happens with the space of a certain size – size N.
So if N = 1, you would press a button when a word was spoken twice in a row or the number was shown twice in a row. However, if N=2, then you need to identify when the number or word two back is the same. When N=3, you’re listening for repetitions spaced three apart.
This exercise has been shown in many studies to be one of the most effective working memory exercises there is and to have measurable positive impacts on IQ as well.
The only problem is that this is also really boring. So, if you’re interested in trying other ways to improve working memory, then there are options out there. One such option is to practice meditation. Meditation is really nothing more than sustained attention and so by practicing focusing and calming your mind, you improve your ability to focus on – and therefore recall – a variety of stimuli. What’s more, is that meditation has been shown to encourage more connectivity throughout the frontal regions of the brain, which in turn is linked with intelligence and especially working memory.
If you want something that makes this even more fun, then you could even try playing the game ‘pairs’. It’s not going to be as effective as brain training with Dual N-Back exercises but it’s a bit more enjoyable and a good way to get started if you can’t face hours of listening out for sounds and beeps.
Whatever you decide, this is definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Boost your working memory and you might just get the sharp, focused brain that you’ve always dreamed of!