Working memory is “the ultimate evolutionary tool” that has helped us create everything from Google to the Eiffel Tower, according to authors and researchers Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D, and Ross Alloway, Ph.D, in their new book The Working Memory Advantage: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster.
They define working memory as “the conscious processing of information.” And in addition to inventing incredible innovations, working memory is critical for our daily lives.
In fact, the authors call working memory our brain’s conductor. Just as a musical conductor creates a symphony of melodies by instilling order to an orchestra of instruments, working memory instills order to the onslaught of information we confront day to day, including shifting to-do lists, emails, social media alerts, work projects and ringing phones.
So how can we supercharge this maestro of memory?
Working memory helps us process and prioritize information. It helps us stay focused and filter out irrelevant data — like that ringing phone — when we’re chipping away at a work assignment. This ability to tune out distractions also helps kids focus on assignments with multiple steps — instead of their classmates’ chatter — and access information they need, such as words and numbers.
It also helps us make smarter decisions by focusing on the most critical information when deliberating for ourselves the pros and cons of a specific situation or a risky business venture.
It even helps us become better athletes. For instance, when you’re playing tennis, and the ball comes toward you, your working memory helps you scour your options and pick the best play, while keeping in mind where your opponent is on the court.
The prefrontal cortex is the home of working memory. But there are other areas of the brain that help, as well. For instance, any time you need to retrieve long-term information to perform a task, the hippocampus steps in. Think of it as your “brain’s library,” according to the Alloways.
Any time you need to make calculations, such as picking the best mortgage loan, the intraparietal sulcus, the math center of the brain, is activated. (“In fact, the intraparietal sulcus is so important to math skills that when researchers used mild electrical currents in order to take it offline, participants struggled to perform simple math tasks, like deciding whether 4 was bigger than 2.”)
The Alloways feature many valuable exercises in their book to help readers strengthen their working memories. They also include habits we can practice. Here are four habits, ranging from easy to challenging.
Research from British psychologist Jackie Andrade suggests that doodling can help you recall information by enlisting your working memory. In her study, Andrade had participants listen to a boring conversation. She told everyone that they didn’t have to remember it. She asked one group to doodle during the tape, while the second group did not.
After the tape was finished, Andrade revealed that the participants did have to recall both the people and places mentioned. The participants who doodled remembered more than the group who didn’t doodle.
Andrade believes that doodling keeps our brains minimally stimulated. Instead of daydreaming, we still pay some attention. So, as the authors suggest, “if you ever find yourself dozing or daydreaming during a meeting, lecture, or class, grab a pencil and paper and start doodling.”
While there’s little research on the relationship between clutter and working memory, it makes sense that the more stuff you have laying around, the greater the demand on your brain. If your working memory is focused on finding the document you need, it won’t be able to focus on actually accomplishing the task at hand.
Plus, when you’re looking for what you need, you come across everything else, which further distracts you from your task. As the authors note, “An hour or so later, you realize you never finished the project you set out to accomplish.”
The authors suggest de-cluttering your desk and computer. They also suggest that when you buy something new, you get rid of something you already own.
Depending on how much clutter you have, weekly or monthly, you also can “evaluate ten ‘treasures’ in your home and ask yourself if you really cherish them. If you don’t, chuck it.” Take a few minutes out of your day to straighten up your environment and electronic space (like sorting your email into relevant folders).
Research from Andreas Fink at Austria’s University of Graz found that when participants were thinking of creative uses for everyday objects, the areas of their brain associated with working memory were activated. To enhance your working memory, come up with three unconventional uses for a conventional object. The authors gave the example of a fork, which “can be refashioned into a fish hook, a paint scraper, or a lever for opening stubborn jam jars.”
Get Moving Outdoors
A study from the University of Illinois found that running improved participants’ working memories (while weight lifting did not). Other research suggests that running fires up the prefrontal cortex (remember that’s the home of working memory).
Barefoot running might be even more beneficial. In a study conducted by the authors, barefoot runners had higher working memories than runners who wore shoes.
There’s also an interesting type of exercise called MovNat, which might boost working memory. The Alloways describe it as “the original workout; the workout our prehistoric ancestors had to do every day in order to survive – jumping, running, climbing, throwing, crawling and balancing in a random, natural environment.” (You can learn more here.)
Ross Alloway joined one MovNat workshop to test the participants’ working memories throughout the day. Before the workshop started, on average, participants were able to remember four numbers in backward order. At lunchtime, they were able to remember five new numbers.
“By the end of the day, despite being tired and muddy after training for so many hours, they were now able to remember about six numbers in backward order, or 50 percent more than they were able to in the morning.”
Working memory is vital to surviving and thriving in our daily lives. And the great news is that we can boost our working memory with a variety of fun and healthy habits.