Do you have trouble remembering phone numbers and grocery lists, or adding up three-digit numbers in your head? Although technology relieved us from having to perform calculations in our head or remember lists of things, memory and intelligence are indispensable tools for every human being. Stop exercising these abilities and you will find that they quickly weaken over time! If you want to keep your brain healthy into your eighties and nineties and prevent brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, remember to put your cognitive abilities to use regularly (1). Everyone must understand the importance of working memory and intelligence in day-to-day life. It is easy to develop both of them immensely, and hence enjoy a better quality of life.
It boils down to working memory
The term ‘working memory’ refers to our short-term memory, which we use in a fashion similar to a scratchpad. Our working memory typically has a very small capacity and can hold only a few number of things temporarily for recalling quickly. Things you make a mental note of, when reading, analysing a problem in your head, or when performing a calculation; go into your working memory first. If nothing is done about these items for a while, they quickly vanish, making you forget what you were previously working on. People with short attention spans cannot stay in one train of thought for too long, because they usually have a small working memory.
While the measure of a person’s intelligence is dependent on many aspects of his/her mental performance, the most significant among them is working memory. Limited working memory is usually the bottleneck to a person’s day-to-day performance in tasks requiring intelligence. The most common problems of life require the ability to efficiently manage multiple tasks or mental processes in order to attain desired goals. This coping skill of a person is largely defined by their working memory. Solving life’s problems also requires learning; and learning and managing new knowledge efficiently so it can be applied it to one’s problems is again a test for one’s working memory.
If you experience symptoms of ADHD, just improving your working memory sufficiently will probably make them disappear (2). A Good working memory is also a crucial factor in exercising relentless focus in the face of distractions.
Recent research shows that working memory can be greatly improved with practice. As you can guess by now, improving your working memory will also develop your intelligence by the same degree (3).
A ‘fun’-da-’mental’ exercise
One of the best ways to train your working memory is to do the classic ‘n-back task’ commonly used in studies on working memory. There are numerous variations of this exercise such as dual n-back, triple n-back and so on; but the basic objective of the exercise is to recognize repeating stimuli occuring ‘n’ times ago in a stream of stimuli presented. In dual or triple n-back, there are multiple streams of the stimuli (audio, position, and color). For an n of 2, you have to recognize repetition two stimuli apart. 2-back is easy, 3-back needs your attention, and 4-back stresses an average person without any training. There are people who have gone up to a dual 11-back with practice, however.
The following two reasons are why it is best to use ‘n-back’ to regularly train your intelligence.
1. ‘n-back’ increases your generalized performance (meaning the improvement is not task-specific) in working memory and fluid intelligence.
2. It is a challenging and fun activity for everyone, and there is no limit to how much you can improve regardless of your current abilities. Simply keep training at the peak of your ability and your working memory and cognitive skills keep improving!
Our recommendation for n-back on the PC is the open-source Brain Workshop game. There are so many options in the game that you can’t ask for more. It’s simply the best n-back practice program available for Windows and Linux, for free.
Physical activity and aerobic exercise
We already know exercise is good for everyone to improve blood circulation throughout the body and brain. But the importance of regular physical activity, for those trying to improve their cognitive abilities, simply cannot be stressed enough. Mental exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons, but physical exercise boosts it further and maintains it! Research has shown over and over again that physical exercise plays a crucial factor in brain growth (4,5,6). Furthermore, aerobic exercise increases the dopamine receptors in your brain (7,8), which is suggested to lead to better motivation, mood, and even creativity (9,10). Make sure you routinely perform activities like running, climbing, cycling, and weight lifting to make sure your body and brain are getting their regular dose of health benefits.
Like exercise, diet has a profound effect on mental performance. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the calories and nutrients we eat are consumed by the brain. A balanced diet consisting of wholesome foods will naturally supplement your brainpower training.
Other ways to train the working memory
Language learning is an interesting way to train your working memory. The effectiveness of this method as a working memory stressor is currently unknown; however, it is recommended for two reasons: 1. Learning one more language is always both fun and useful, allowing you to interact with and learn from different cultures and societies. 2. There are studies (11,12) that show that a good working memory is essential to learning languages; so we can safely assume that language learning is a good exercise for the WM.
Regular use of mnemonics is a great exercise to develop your memory to the extreme, whether you realize it or not. Many memory experts know that the more they try to remember, the more their brain capacity grows. Using mnemonics to remember new things will naturally force your brain to form more neural connections and prompt the growth of new brain matter, making your memory more efficient. Used properly, mnemonics can help you learn new languages in a short time. Using mnemonic devices to crack puzzle games like Sudoku can be a quick way to stimulate memory growth.
There are other fun ways to improve your working memory and intelligence, and some of them can be addictive. The author’s favorite way to train the brain so far is to work on NP-hard brain games like Chess or Sokoban. NP-hard problems are solved by visualizing a tree of possible moves, and then tracing back frequently. This stresses the working memory significantly, and progressing in game complexicity is usually an indicator of improved working memory.
Sokoban by itself stresses the working memory sufficiently, but you can also train the WM by visualizing large game trees in the head (like a chess player does), instead of actually pushing the pieces and undoing them on a screen. It is also possible to learn holding the level maps in your memory and play the game entirely in your head (remembering positions for a number of pieces as you move them). Although the author is still an infant at this, practice is what develops his ability to do it, as with n-back. With this technique you can further develop your visualization and focusing skills as well.
If you are aware of any other methods to train the working memory, please let us know!
Benefits of an improved working memory
The side-effects of an even a slightly improved working memory can be tremendous. One may notice an increase in mental focus, multi-tasking ability, and reading speed as a consequence of WM training. The anxiety and irritability that creep up when planning out big goals in your head will fade significantly. You may no longer need to reread a paragraph twice or thrice to properly comprehend what is being said, even in a paper filled with technical jargon. If you’re a writer, you might be able to quickly and effortlessly deliver a stream of thoughts into the word processor. Frequent training will also improve the long term memory considerably — letting you hold on to any thoughts and ideas that pop up at random time in the head for days. The author has experienced all the aforementioned benefits with just a few weeks of working memory training. If you don’t believe him, start your own training schedule and discover for yourself how impactful a developed working memory can be on all aspects of your life.
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