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Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better?

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. In this article, Dr. Carol Tavris examines the evidence to see if working memory training programs really work.

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. The goal is improved performance and attentional stamina. Obviously, the results are what really matter.

You can guess what’s coming, can’t you? Monica Melby-Lervåg, who is in the Department of Special Needs Education at the University of Oslo, and her colleagues Thomas S. Redick and Charles Hulme recently published a meta-analysis of working memory training studies: 87 publications with 145 experimental comparisons.2 All studies had a pretest-posttest design and a control group, and were designed to see whether working memory training transferred to other measures (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, or arithmetic). Typically, right after training, people reliably improved on measures of “intermediate transfer,” that is, tests of doing what they had just learned to do. (Practice doing puzzles and you get better at doing puzzles.) For measures of “far transfer” (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, and arithmetic), the researchers found “no convincing evidence of any reliable improvements when working memory training was compared with a treated control condition.” They conclude: “working memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize to measures of ‘real-world’ cognitive skills.”

There is no good evidence that working memory training improves intelligence test scores or other measures of ‘real-world’ cognitive skills.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, the eminent memory scientist Randall W. Engel and his lab have been finding the same thing.3 In their own meta-analytic review, they concluded that “the claims made by Cogmed are largely unsubstantiated…there is no good evidence that working memory training improves intelligence test scores or other measures of ‘real-world’ cognitive skills.” They added:

Cogmed working memory training is sold as a tool for improving cognitive abilities, such as attention and reasoning…. The only unequivocal statement that can be made is that Cogmed will improve performance on tasks that resemble Cogmed training. However, for people seeking increased intelligence, improved focus and attentional control, or relief from ADHD, current research suggests that this training program does not provide the desired result.

This is not an innocuous issue. No one cares and you have nothing to lose if you play Scrabble morning, noon, and night. But a person taking the full Cogmed program will pay up to $1,500, and when educators and clinicians invest in it lavishly in the belief that it will help troubled populations—notably underperforming or inattentive students— costs become a concern. That is why, Engel and his colleagues write with calm understatement, “The efficacy of Cogmed is not simply a scientific curiosity. Cogmed is a product that is actively marketed to school systems and to the parents of children with developmental disabilities. Due to the cost to tax payers and consumers, it is our opinion that demonstrating the validity of this program is of the utmost importance.”

Finally, Thomas Redick took a close look at five studies that claimed to have demonstrated benefits of working-memory training.4 Most had tiny samples (between 7 and 17 people in both training and control groups); where benefits occurred right after the intervention, they were gone in a few months; and that any apparent benefits of training were actually a statistical artifact. These findings were extended and confirmed in a major 2016 meta-analysis of studies of “brain-training programs” that specifically focused on the use of cognitive tasks or games as a means of enhancing performance on other tasks —which, after all, is what the test promoters claim they can do. But don’t.5

As long as I’m reporting unwelcome news, here’s another tidbit: mindfulness meditation, shown to have indisputably good effects on mind and body, has an unexpected down side: it increases susceptibility to false memories. In three experiments, Brent Wilson and his colleagues randomly assigned participants to either a mindfulness induction, in which they were instructed to focus attention on their breathing, or a mind-wandering induction, in which they were instructed to think about whatever came to mind.6 Then they took a standard memory test in which participants are shown a list of words, and later asked either to recall them (by writing down as many as they could remember) or recognize those they had seen among a larger list. Each memory test contains a word (the critical item) that is closely related to the words on the list but is not actually on it. For example, the list garbage, waste, can, refuse, sewage, junk, rubbish, sweep, scraps, pile, dump, and litter can activate the critical item trash. The overall number of correctly-recalled words did not differ between conditions, but people in the mindfulness condition were significantly more likely to report having seen trash (a false memory) than participants in the control condition. “Because mindfulness meditation encourages judgment-free thoughts and feelings,” the researchers suggest, it seems to suppress the usual mechanism of reality monitoring by which we decide whether a memory is true or false.

The moral? Mindfulness is good for focusing on the here and now, but maybe not so much for remembering the there and then.

That’s enough on this subject for now. I have a crossword to finish. END

  1. I meant 47. OK, 57.
  2. Melby-Lervåg, Monica; Redick, Thomas S.; and Charles Hulme. 2016. “Working Memory Training Does Not Improve Performance on Measures of Intelligence or Other Measures of ‘Far Transfer’: Evidence From a Meta-Analytic Review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 11, No. 4, 512–534.
  3. Shipstead, Zach; Hicks, Kenny L. ; and Engle, Randall W. 2012. “Cogmed Working Memory Training: Does the Evidence Support the Claims?Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Vol. 1, 185–193.
  4. Redick, Thomas S. 2015. “Working Memory Training and Interpreting Interactions in Intelligence Interventions.” Intelligence, Vol. 50, 14–20.
  5. Simons, Daniel J., et al. (2016). “Do ‘Brain-Training’ Programs Work?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17, No. 3, 103–186.
  6. Wilson, Brent; et al. 2015. “Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation.” Psychological Science, Vol. 26, No. 10, 1567–1573.
About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were made (but not by ME).

This article was published on October 12, 2016.


17 responses to “Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better?”

  1. Lorenzo says:

    I’m curious about the “false memory” phenomenon. How much does confirmation bias play into this? I’m involved in a conduct complaint in which an employee has been accused by a client of “bad behaviour” stemming from comments allegedly made by the employee. The investigation has revealed the employee has no recollection of having made some of the alleged statements, and has stated they may indeed have been made and if so, expressed regret for same and apologized. The employee is puzzled by the client’s assertion that one of the employee’s statements caused anxiety and upset, yet, the employee contends the clients reaction at the time was quite the opposite, and had in fact expressed a positive response. The rationale given by the employer is that sometimes clients express a positive response when in fact they are “upset” and will take time to express that, if at all. The employee’s counsel has asked for further details of the interview with the client, including the questions asked of the client, and how management became aware of the client’s concerns. Counsel and the employee are concerned there is a bias in the questions and thus the client is lead to believe what happened is the truth, but in fact is false. As well, a co-worker of the employee had interactions with the same client, and has a history of numerous negative encounters with the employee, and so counsel has asked the employer what if any role the co-worker has played in the complaint. Have false memories been instilled in the client because of confirmation bias? The investigation is ongoing, and to date, management has yet to comment or respond to counsel’s request for more information.

  2. XaurreauX says:

    Wait, you mean Luminosity doesn’t work?

  3. Eric Berendt says:

    I have made peace with the eroding edifice of my memory, I call it “enhanced memory loss.” Less verbose ages simply admitted that it was “getting old,” and wasn’t a big deal. Kind of like the pleasure I’m sure many octogenarians derived by forcing their ear trumpets into the faces of unwelcome conversationalists; sort of a reverse cone of shame.

  4. BillG says:

    Ironic or not, the term “exercised” may be the cure.

    Toss the anxiety pills and go run 5-miles a day. For many your ADHD would clear up with the bonus of improved memory.

    Oh, and it’s FREE!

  5. Charlotte Davidson says:

    I’m an Educational Diagnostician. One of the key areas of cognition is short term memory. Deficits in short term memory can be linked to Learning Disabilities in Reading in Math. It seems to me that if you are trying to improve working memory, you would test working memory to see if it improved. Have any studies tested to see if working memory subtest scores improved?

  6. OldNassau says:

    “Most had tiny samples ” Sounds like the Wakefield now-disproved study connecting vaccinations with autism. And as his scientific fraud, and others (antineoplastons, mung beans, homeopathy) has its disciples, so will the memory improvement industry.

  7. Romilson Juluso says:

    Excelent article
    The memory fakers Will certainly remember it!

  8. David Burns says:

    Sorry, I can’t remember what I wanted to say.

  9. Eric Geoffroy says:

    But it then veers off into discussions about improving cognition. That’s entirely different.
    You say “There is no good evidence that working memory training improves intelligence test scores or other measures of ‘real-world’ cognitive skills.”

    But, exercising memory improves memory. Isn’t it worth the effort to exercise your memory? Recalling names and faces, card games, characters and details from a mystery novel all benefit from improved memory. Nat Geographic Brain Games demonstrated that memory could be improved.

    The article didn’t refute the studies that showed brain exercising reduced onset of senility and Alzheimer’s. And it doesn’t seem like the question asked in the title was answered.

    • westcj says:

      I am curious about your claim that: “Nat Geographic Brain Games demonstrated that memory could be improved.” I am not sure a TV program is a great source of scientific evidence to support your argument. Which episode are you referring to?

      • Eric Berendt says:

        …if it’s on screen it is true. If you need to pay for print, you are probably lying. Isn’t that what the disruptive culture of the digital era tells us? I mean, if there isn’t an app for it, who gives a shit?

      • Eric Geoffroy says:

        Season 1, Episode 3, Brain Games

        Neuroscientist from NYU was the primary source. There’s a second scientist also providing data.

        I don’t refute the article. It’s just odd to suppose that exercising memory would improve cognition. No surprise that the tests matched expectations.
        Exercising memory would have the intended consequence of improving memory—except the article keeps going back to cognition.

  10. Julie Hannah says:

    Well written, and useful! Now we just need to find something that WILL help memory before the silver Tsunami hits hard and they all forgot where they put their keys!

  11. Marcia Greenwald says:

    I so appreciate your article. It confirms what I have been suspecting for a long time.

  12. Conrado Estol says:

    Interesting, important and so well written! A pleasure to read …and remember.

  13. amoron says:

    I can attest as someone with anxiety + ADHD that mindfulness meditation is good for one thing: relaxing my muscles and serving as a catalyst for motivating me not to procrastinate. The temporary reduction in anxiety following the “clearing of the mind” through focused breathing or binaural beats gives me motivation to start projects. This has a definite positive impact on my grades. The earlier I begin ruminating on a problem, the less stress and anxiety push me toward sloppy work and more time I have allotted to at least unconscious ruminations.

  14. Dave Rockwell says:

    So nicely written – you’ve made the unwelcome news go down easily!

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