In the last several years, working memory exercises have gained popularity. This is due in part to their claims to benefit students. They are often sold as help for poor academic performance, ADHD, dyslexia, language disorders, and other issues. Some even claim to boost people’s IQs.
Memory exercises are increasingly found online, and are widely used around the world in schools and clinics. Most involve tests often used by cognitive scientists to study memory in laboratory experiments. This means they weren’t originally made to be fun or beneficial. The question for folks seeking to get a little smarter is– do they really work?
A review of research testing the benefits of working memory exercises addressed the question head on. The study was led by Monica Melby-Lervåg of the University of Oslo. Her team found that memory exercises appear to have limited effect on healthy adults and children looking to do better in school or improve their cognitive skills.
The study also concludes that working memory exercises are unlikely to be an effective treatment for children suffering from attention-deficit, hyperactivity, or dyslexia.
According to Melby-Lervåg, the belief that memory exercises help is often based on the idea that you can train your brain in much the same way as you can lift weights to build muscle. Her review of the research shows memory exercises do not improve memory outside of the tasks presented within these tests.
The problem that any gains made on the memory exercises don’t transfer to new situations is a common one in cognitive science. This is what makes mind building different and harder than body building. Some cognitive skills do transfer, such as memory retrieval practice. These skills are rare and important.
Working memory enables people to recycle information for short periods of time. One example of a working memory exercise is to be given a series of numbers one at a time on a computer screen. The computer shows a new digit and erases the last one. The trainee is prompted to recall the number no longer shown. More difficult versions of the memory exercise ask trainees to recall the number that appeared two, three or four digits ago.
In a meta-analysis of 23 peer-reviewed studies, Melby-Lervåg and her colleagues found that working memory exercises improved performance on tasks related to the training itself. That is, you can get better at remembering the sequence of digits presented to you.
However, the memory exercises did not improve other cognitive skills such as verbal skills, attention, reading or arithmetic. The findings cast strong doubt on claims that working memory exercises improve cognitive ability and scholastic attainment. For example, it’s doubtful they would improve note taking ability, even though it taxes working memory. A better bet would be to read your textbook before class, so that you can mentally access and juggle the specific concepts in the course more readily.
Do the findings imply that there is no hope for people who want to learn better?
No, that would be an overgeneralization. There are a number of study strategies that have been researched and scientifically proven to aid in learning and thinking better.
The current results imply that the very intuitive weightlifting analogy doesn’t hold up: Boring memory drills will not do for your working memory what curls will do for your biceps.
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