Four Steps to Improving Working Memory
What is working memory?
How many times have you scrambled for a piece of paper when someone on the phone says “The number is 720583…”? Don’t worry—we all have.
Situations like this bring your working memory into play. Often called the brain’s ‘scratch pad’, the working memory acts as your short term clipboard, storing small amounts of information for a short period of time.
When we first encounter new information, it goes straight to our working memory, which keeps it readily available for us should we need it. But, in order to store it long term, we need to make a conscious effort, hence the term ‘commit it to memory.’
Simply put, working memory can be thought of as two major components (1):
The visio-spatial sketchpad (meaning the ability to recognize things in relation to others – like having a mental map of how to get home)
The auditory processing system (the ability to process verbal information)
Here’s an example. You’re in the grocery store, and you mentally try to add up the items in your cart to have a rough idea of the cost. That’s working memory. Even reading this article hinges on your ability to recall the sections you’ve already read and apply the logic to what you’re about to read.
Like a muscle, working memory is flexible and can be trained to hold more information. The more you try to remember things like phone numbers and lists, the better you get at it. This has been shownin several different studies (2,3).
In addition to training, sleep may help in augmenting training-induced improvement in working memory. Both children and adults showed better working memory performance after sleep compared to those who didn’t (4).
3. Eat Flavenoids
Certain foods may also have an impact on improving working memory. Blueberries—rich in flavenoids—have been shown to enhance brain activity in areas of the hippocampus responsible for working memory (5). Consumption of about 60-120mg of blueberries a day is the recommended dosage. Additionally, consuming caffeine after (no effect if taken during or before) a memory task helps in consolidating the information learned (6).
Last but not least, let’s talk about our old favorite—exercise. Patients who recently suffered from a stroke found that just 15 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise greatly improved function in their frontal parts of the brain (where parts of the working memory system live)(7). This improvement was also seen in healthy individuals after 30 minutes of similar exercise. Interestingly, the authors added that those with a shorter working memory at baseline tended to benefit the most from exercise(8).
To sum up, working memory can be improved with training and a diet rich in flavenoids, along with sleep and exercise.
1. Cowan N. What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research. 2008;169:323-338. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(07)00020-9.
2. Schneiders JA, Opitz B, Tang H, et al. The impact of auditory working memory training on the fronto-parietal working memory network. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:173. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00173.
3. Blacker, K.J., Negoita, S., Ewen, J.B. et al. N-back Versus Complex Span Working Memory Training. J Cogn Enhanc (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-017-0044-1
4. Zinke K, Noack H, Born J. Sleep augments training-induced improvement in working memory in children and adults. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2017 Nov 22;147:46-53. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2017.11.009. [Epub ahead of print]
5. Williams CM, El Mohsen MA, Vauzour D, Rendeiro C, Butler LT, Ellis JA, Whiteman M, Spencer JP. Blueberry-induced changes in spatial working memory correlate with changes in hippocampal CREB phosphorylation and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. Free Radic Biol Med. 2008 Aug 1;45(3):295-305. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2008.04.008. Epub 2008 May 5.
6. Borota D, Murray E, Keceli G, Chang A, Watabe JM, Ly M, Toscano JP, Yassa MA. Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans. Nature Neuroscience. 2014;17:201–203. doi:10.1038/nn.3623
7. Moriya M, Aoki C, Sakatani K. Effects of Physical Exercise on Working Memory and Prefrontal Cortex Function in Post-Stroke Patients. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2016;923:203-208. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-38810-6_27.
8. Sibley BA, Beilock SL. Exercise and Working Memory: An Individual Differences Investigation. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2007, 29, 783-791