The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (which is excellent, btw) recently published an article on improving working memory that’s gotten quite a bit of attention over the last few days. It’s also generated a fair amount of hype. The short version is the dual n-back test improved the working memory of participants by 30% over the baseline. Training using the dual n-back test was twice as effective as a competing method, the complex span test.
Working memory is temporary storage for data requiring immediate retrieval. Like a memory cache on a computer, working memory comes into play when remembering a phone number, directions, or the names of the six people you just met at a cocktail party.
In the experiment, 136 young adults trained with their respective methods for 30 minutes a day, five days per week. In the complex span test, trainees have to remember the location of an item while being distracted by another task. Figure 1 gives an idea of what this test looks like:
Figure 1: Representation of the complex span test.
Trainees using this method were less effective an improving working memory than those training with the dual n-back test. The dual n-back test consists of visual and auditory components (hence the “dual”) where the user has to remember both the letter spoken and the location of the square on the screen “n” spaces back. For example, if asked to recall the spoken letter and square location from two letters ago, that’s a 2-back test. Three letters ago, 3-back, and so on. Figure 2 depicts what the dual n-back test looks like.
Figure 2. Dual n-back test.
Importantly, the researchers have no idea why this method works better than others. Researchers determined dual n-band trainees had an increase in alpha band brain activity, which correlates to attention, memory and executive functions.
The researchers also tested intelligence before and after the training period, hypothesizing that training would improve overall intelligence. Unfortunately, no such improvement was found. Today’s brain training is narrowly focused on improving a specific skill set rather than improving general intelligence.
However, this memory training method gives me hope that I’ll finally be able to remember names the next time I’m at a cocktail party.