Working memory has been a subject of intense interest in recent times because of it’s link to fluid intelligence but as promising as the research has been on enhancing cognitive function with brain training, there are still questions abound about how useful this training actually is. Can the benefits be translated to other areas unrelated to the training?
One writer from the New Yorker, Gareth Cook thinks not – as he wrote in his article “Brain Games are Bogus“:
“the games may yield improvements in the narrow task being trained, but this does not transfer to broader skills like the ability to read or do arithmetic, or to other measures of intelligence. Playing the games makes you better at the games, but not at anything anyone might care about in real life.”
If you’re wondering about that, you probably should read the more moderate article from Scott Kaufman on Scientific American – “In Defense of Working Memory Training:
“Cook based his conclusion on a recent review by Monica Melby-Lervag and Charles Hulme… the researchers saw little evidence for the generalization of working memory training to other mental skills such as reading comprehension, word decoding, and arithmetic. But… The researchers also found that working memory training programs do produce reliable short-term improvements in both verbal and visuospatial working memory skills…”
“…intelligence isn’t a single ability. There is an emerging consensus among intelligence researchers that general cognitive ability is comprised of multiple interacting cognitive functions, and working memory is one of those crucial intellectual functions.”
And parents pay attention!
“Younger children (below the age of 10 years) showed significantly larger benefits from verbal working memory training than older children (11-18 years of age).”
According to Kaufman, there are many other variables affecting the results of working memory training, such as:
- learning disabilities
- mental illness
- socioeconomic status
And even though the review above little evidence for the generalization of working memory training to other mental skills such as reading comprehension, I found another review that seems to suggest otherwise…
From Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2010) – “Expanding the mind’s workspace: Training and transfer effects with a complex working memory span task”:
- Working Memory training can lead to improvements in cognitive control, as measured in the Stroop task.
- Working Memory training can lead to improvements in reading comprehension.
In “Smarter” by Dan Hurley, there was also a brief reference to a study by Jason Chein that demonstrated the effects of working memory training on recall of new words from a foreign language which I haven’t been able to locate as yet.
I didn’t dig deep into the research on what worked, what didn’t, and what were the limitations, but, as Hurley states, it is early days in this new era of neuroscience research. There is so much we don’t fully understand but even at this early juncture, the research findings are promising. That, I believe, warrants further investigation on how we can better train ourselves to become smarter.
Further studies in support of working memory training transfer:
- Working-memory training in younger and older adults: training gains, transfer, and maintenance
- Training and plasticity of working memory
- Working memory training and transfer in older adults
- Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory