A majority of the mistakes and cognitive errors that I have documented in this blog involve failures of working memory. Working memory is where we hold information online while we manipulate it and/or consider what to do with it. It’s where we hear our internal voice. It’s the central cog in our executive functioning network.
Consequently, it’s not pretty when you start to experience declines in your working memory abilities which, as it so happens, are usually the first to go as we get older.
So I was intrigued by an article in The New York Times last week that reviewed a new book (The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind) by neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak in which he asserts that exercising your working memory can forestall its decline and possibly even restore prior losses. The article covers his 7 key recommendations and you can read it here.
Regular readers of this blog know me well enough to figure out that I downloaded the book and read it this week. It reviews all the usual types of memory and he adds a few new ones of his own construction. He pays more attention to brain structures than most books of this type, but he keeps his narrative breezy and conversational, including examples ‘ripped from the headlines,’ as they say.
He recounts the usual litany of techniques you can use to better remember lists, but I was most intrigued by his lengthy discussion of working memory and exercises you can do to actually strengthen it.
One such exercise was to name all of the United States presidents in chronological order, beginning with FDR. Then do it in reverse order. Then do it alphabetically. Then do it in reverse alphabetical order. If you want to try this, I’ll give you a hint: there are 15 of them.
It took me a little while one sleepless night to master this task. As I did so, I felt like I could actually see the places where my working memory let me down and where answers were swimming nearby but just out of awareness.
He recommended making other lists that you can manipulate in similar ways, and to practice organizing them in your mind every day.
He also recommended daily practice with what is known as the ‘N-back task.’ The easy-to-do-at-home version of this only requires a deck of playing cards. First, you select two cards that will be your ‘trigger’ cards, say a ten and a three. Then you turn over the cards one by one, look at them, and place them face down in a pile. When one of your trigger cards appears, you have to name the card that preceded it. This is the ‘1-back’ version of the task. After you’ve mastered it, you can make it more difficult by trying to name the card that was two cards before the current card, or ‘2-back.’
I immediately pulled out a deck of cards and tried it…and failed miserably at the 2-back version. I did alright with the 1-back version, actually having the most difficulty remembering which were my 2 trigger cards!
This piqued my interest in working memory tasks and so I googled it. I discovered quite a number of sites offering (for a subscription fee) computerized versions of a wide variety of working memory tasks.
I tried a number of them and quickly discovered how limited my working memory is. I was especially bad at tasks that required me to remember visual images. In fact, I noticed that I retained virtually no memory of the images and had to resort to semantic memory to complete the task, i.e., naming the images that had flashed on the screen and remembering the names, not the pictures.
Neuropsychological tests are very good at isolating and identifying your weaknesses, and these were no exception.
Dr. Restak talked about my condition in his book. It’s called ‘hypophantasia’ which is the inability to retain fleeting visual images in your mind’s eye. Conversely, people who are exceptionally adept at doing this have ‘hyperphantasia.’ My first wife was such a person. She could walk through someone’s house once and later draw a diagram of all the rooms on every floor…to scale! Most of us have abilities that fall somewhere along this spectrum from hyper- to hypophantasia.
This experience alarmed me enough to want to initiate a structured workout routine to try to improve (or at least slow the deterioration) of my working memory. My recollection, though, was that—Dr. Restak’s exhortations notwithstanding—the research is mixed about whether computer games and tasks can actually improve your cognitive abilities. In most cases, it appears that you can get better at the computerized task, but that it doesn’t generalize to improve your ability to perform other tasks of daily living. What was I to do?
Right on cue, I received an email from one of my college roommates, Tom, with an article from The Boston Globe about several large-scale, age-related cognitive studies that are being launched in New England. Among the variables being tested are brain training techniques. The program offered by a company called BrainHQ will be used in these studies.
Well, if it’s good enough for the researchers, then it’s good enough for me! So I went to www.BrainHQ.com and subscribed for a year for $96.00. My intention is to do a 1-hour workout each day…if the frustration from getting too many wrong answers doesn’t overwhelm me.
Wish me luck!