How a few simple exercises can make us smarter, more alert, and better decision makersHow many times have you tried to focus on a single, important task, only to have your mind feel like a pinball machine? No matter how hard you try to keep your thoughts in order, ideas continue to bounce wildly around, beating at your limited attention. While working on a project, all of a sudden you start thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner or a conversation you had with a friend a few nights ago. The mind can be a fickle muscle. Luckily, there are ways to control and protect your precious thoughts from outside ideas by simply improving one main cognitive function: your working memory.
What is ‘working memory’?When you hold information and manipulate it in your mind for any length of time you’re engaging what cognitive neuroscientists call Working Memory. Some common examples are having to remember a phone number between the time of hearing it and dialling, or remembering driving instructions while you look for specific landmarks (“take the first right then go straight until you see the big yellow sign and then it’s the third building on the left…”). In situations like these, you not only need to keep certain bits of information fresh and ready in your mind, but also work with them in the context of the real world. But working memory isn’t just for basic instructions, either. The last time you wrote a blog post or article, working memory is what allowed you to hold onto the information you absorbed during your research and then choose what fits best for your piece. Our working memory becomes like a blackboard in your brain where you keep relevant information while you’re using it. The problem is that working memory can only hold a finite amount of information at one time. And it’s constantly being bombarded by new thoughts and sensory experiences trying to take the place of your focused thoughts. There are, however, a few ways to increase your working memory capacity.
How we hold onto thoughts while we workWhile we’ve been aware of working memory since the 1980s, our understanding of how it works has changed. The most recent theory proposed by psychologists Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch suggests there are multiple ‘buffers’ where information is stored, which are controlled by a supervisory system called the Central Executive. And before we can understand how to increase our working memory, we need to understand how it works.
Step 1: The Phonological LoopRemember when I mentioned trying to recall a phone number? You most likely ‘heard’ your inner voice practicing the sequence over and over in what’s called the phonological loop. When information is heard, we transform it into a sound-based ‘code’. Then, to prevent this information from decaying, we actively rehearse the code ‘speaking’ with our mind’s voice and ‘listening’ with the mind’s ear in a continuous loop, like an internal echo-box. But things fall out of the loop quickly, which is why longer sequences are harder to remember. As we reach the end of the sequence, the first few items are usually already gone. American psychologist George Miller quantified the limits of our working memory in his paper The magic number seven, plus or minus two, where he suggested that on average most people can only hold 7 ‘items’ of information in their working memory at one time.
Step 2: The Visuospatial SketchpadPicture in your mind a room you know well (it could even be the one you’re in). Now close your eyes and name the objects along the wall from left to right. As you look around the space using the mind’s eye you’re engaging the visuospatial sketchpad—the part of working memory that allows you to develop, inspect, and navigate through a mental image. While the phonological loop deals with sounds and verbal commands, the sketchpad is concerned with visual memory.
Step 3: The Episodic BufferAlthough not part of the original model, in 2000 Baddeley added a new component to his theoy called the episodic buffer, which is dedicated to linking information and forming integrated units of visual, spatial, and verbal information with time sequencing. It’s what allows us to quickly recall the plots of novels or movies, or put larger chunks of data into context.
The Executive Control: Bringing it all togetherPutting the work in working memory is the executive control—a system that ties the whole thing together and determines what information is retained and which buffer it should go in. The executive also integrates and coordinates information in the three buffers and, most importantly, provides a space where the information can be worked with and manipulated. If the three different buffers as bins holding your Legos, the executive control is the board where you piece them together and build something new.
How to increase your working memoryWorking memory is one of the most important cognitive functions we have. It helps us with everything from learning the alphabet to understanding social situations, prioritizing multiple activities, and meeting deadlines. Working memory has even been shown to be a better indicator than IQ for future academic success with 98% of children with poor working memory showing very low scores on standardized tests of reading comprehension and math. So, what are there ways we can try to increase our working memory capacity?
Reduce the stress in your lifeIncreasingly, studies have shown that stress can have a negative impact on our working memory. The more stress in one’s life, the lower the efficiency of working memory in performing simple cognitive tasks.
“The students who had taken the mindfulness training showed increased working memory capacity and on average scored 16% higher on reading comprehension tests”It’s a frustrating cycle. Losing focus and not being able to finish a project on time creates stress, which in turn lowers our capacity to regain and maintain focus. One way that has been shown to help us break out of this cycle, however, is to become more mindful. A 2013 study out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, examined 48 undergraduate students who had been assigned either 2 weeks of mindfulness training or a nutrition course. At the end of the experiment period, the students who had taken the mindfulness training showed increased working memory capacity and on average scored 16% higher on reading comprehension tests not only compared to their own pre-study tests, but against their peers who had taken the nutrition course. When you start to feel unwanted thoughts creep into your head, take a breather and empty your head, even for just a few minutes. It will help you regain your composure and control your focus when you return to your work.
Sweat it outWorking memory may also be increased by high intensity exercise. An experiment conducted by Exercise Scientist Dr Christine Lo Bue-Estes and her colleagues looked at the effect of exercise on working memory capacity before, during, and after performing strenuous activities. The results showed that while working memory capacity decreased during and immediately after bouts of intense exercise, it increased following a short recovery period when compared to those who hadn’t exercised. Just like hard exercise is good for increasing your general mental performance, it can specifically boost your working memory capacity as well.
Dust off your guitar (or piano or flute or tuba)In Swedish physician Torkel Klingberg’s book The Overflowing Brain he proposes that working memory can be enhanced through exposure to excess neural activation. Klingberg’s research showed that the more we practice a certain skill, the larger the area of the brain activated by that particular type of sensory experience. For example, the area of the brain activated by the sound of a guitar will be larger in a player than it is in a non-player. Not only will you be able to hold more information in your working memory but practicing your new skill can also help train you to ignore distractions and stay focused—the benefits of which transfer to other tasks.
It’s important to note that like many parts of the inner workings of our brain working memory is still a field we don’t fully understand and one that has relationships with a multitude of different cognitive tasks. What we do know is that our brain has a limited capacity to hold on to information during a task and has a hard time deflecting distractions (as anyone trying to hit a deadline has surely experienced). In the end, whatever we can do to increase this capacity—whether it’s exercising vigorously, learning a new skill, or practicing mindfulness techniques—helps us stay focused and quiets all those other millions of things trying to take away our attention.