Can Training Your Working Memory Make You Smarter? We reviewed the evidence – The Conversation

Extract from an article by Giovanni Sala, PhD Candidate, Cognitive Psychology & Fernand Gobet, Professor of Decision Making and Expertise, University of Liverpool.

We would all like to boost our cognitive ability beyond the limits set by Mother Nature. So it’s no wonder that brain-training programmes – which typically focus on training our working memory – are a multibillion-dollar industry. But can this kind of training really make us smarter?

If it could, the implications for society would clearly be huge – and could help us unveil the secrets of the human mind. Now we have reviewed the most studied type of cognitive training – working memory training – to find an answer.

Cognitive training sees the brain as a kind of muscle that can be made stronger with the right kind of practice. It consists of tasks or games that are typically carried out on computers, tablets or smart phones. Despite much research, there has so far been no agreement about its effectiveness. Some think that cognitive training boosts a broad range of cognitive abilities, while others are far more pessimistic.

Yet we do know that some cognitive skills, such as working memory and intelligence, tend to go together and are predictors of real-life skills such as work performance. Thus, training one cognitive skill might lead to an improvement in many other cognitive and non-cognitive skills. That is exactly the underlying hypothesis on which working-memory training is based.

Working memory is a cognitive system, related to short-term memory, that stores and manipulates the information necessary to solve complex cognitive tasks. The amount of information this cognitive system can manage is quite limited – if we are asked to remember a number of items or digits in a short period of time we can manage, on average, (only seven). The type of intelligence that working-memory capacity correlates most highly with is called fluid intelligence. This describes a person’s ability to solve new problems and adapt to novel situations. Fluid intelligence is the most reliable predictor of academic achievement and work performance.

Thus, it’s not crazy to believe that engaging in working-memory tasks – such as n-back taskswhich present people with a sequence of visual stimuli and ask them to indicate when the current stimulus matches the one from a certain number of steps earlier in the sequence – may foster working-memory capacity and, consequently, fluid intelligence and school or work performance.

SOURCE: Sala, Giovanni and Gobet, Fernand. “Can Training Your Working Memory Make You Smarter? We reviewed the evidence.” The Conversation, 11 March 2017.

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