The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better?

By Tavris, Carol | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better?


Tavris, Carol, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


I HATE WRITING THIS ISSUE'S COLUMN. Sometimes it is really annoying to have to review information you don't want to hear, but it's my moral and scientific obligation to do it, so you don't have to. Like most of humanity over the age of 37, (1) I have been awaiting the scientific discoveries that will improve my memory. In my lifetime, I have seen enough of these to realize that memory-improvement advice generally depends on whatever model of memory is current at the time. When people erroneously believed that memories were "filed away," the solution was to improve our card-catalog system. When people erroneously believed that memories were recorded as if on tapes, the solution was to find a way to rewind them (and remove the dust and scratches). When people erroneously believed that memories were "buried," like pirate treasure or potatoes, the solution was to find ways to "uproot" them. Some of these memory-improvement methods were benign; others, like "recovered memory therapy," hypnosis, and truth serum, had malevolent consequences that destroyed many lives and families. I am sympathetic to the desire to improve our muddy memories and restore forgotten ones. We are our memories.

Today, in our health-conscious culture permeated by people eating kale, meditating, and working out, it seems tempting to regard the brain as just another muscle, one whose relevant parts can be "exercised" to keep them from getting flabby and plump. Memory exercises and meditation to the rescue! Puzzles, games, and challenges are today's mental weights.

In recent decades, memory scientists have revved up their study of "working memory," one of the key mental systems responsible for storing and manipulating information. Working memory is a cognitively complex form of short-term memory--that little bin where we store a new phone number until we use it once or enter it in our contacts list. Working memory is where, well, the work gets done: it involves active mental processes that control retrieval of information from long-term memory and interpret that information appropriately for a given task. No wonder that people who do well on tests of working memory tend to do well on intelligence tests and on tasks requiring complex cognition and the control of attention, such as understanding what they read, following directions, taking notes, learning new words, estimating how much time has elapsed, and many other real-life tasks. When they are engrossed in challenging activities that require concentration and effort, they stay on task longer, and their minds are less likely than other people's to wander.

My own working memory is taking more naps these days, and, when awakened, it tends to go wandering off into the brush. I am, therefore, an obvious candidate for the working memory training programs available. Each of them claims to be supported by ample empirical evidence of its beneficial effects, but I try to live by my own patented skeptical formula: $$(TI) + (WT/ RP) = MDD, where TI is "Time Invested," "WT" is Wishful Thinking, "RP" is Real Problem, and MDD is Money Down Drain.

Working memory training originated in 1999, when a cognitive neuroscientist named Torkel Klingberg created a computer training program designed to improve working memory in children with ADHD. By 2001, Cogmed was officially launched, and initial studies of children with attention deficit problems were promising. Naturally, that early success led to the hope that it would help people with other impairments of working memory--everything from mild learning difficulties to drinking problems to strokes and other forms of brain damage. Today healthy people use it in hopes of improving their creativity, reasoning, intelligence, everyday lapses of attention, and recall of what the hell that movie was we saw last week. Cogmed begat Mindsparke, Lumosity, and Jungle Memory, which allege that they improve IQ scores and school grades. Cogmed claims that its training

   improves attention, concentration, focus,
   impulse control, social skills, and complex
   reasoning skills by substantially and
   lastingly improving working memory capacity. … 

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