Many adults experience a deterioration of working memory due to various cognitive problems or, ultimately, as a consequence of ageing. Exercises for working memory in the form of computer programmes and apps have become increasingly popular. However, research has shown that brain training is less effective in improving working memory than believed.
“Your working memory is a kind of mental desktop. It holds the things that are in your mind or that are being processed at a given time. The working memory is also a bottleneck in people’s capacity for processing information, because it has limited capacity,” says Matti Laine, professor of psychology at Åbo Akademi University.
Laine is head of a project funded by the Academy of Finland. Laine’s project focuses on the potential for training the working memory of adults and his research group has tested the claim that working memory can be improved through exercises. Tests have shown that such training has very limited effects.
“The training tests we have performed and an as yet unpublished meta-analysis indicate that the positive effects of working memory training are largely limited to improving performance in tasks that are very similar to the exercises,” says Anna Soveri, one of the project’s researchers.
No evidence of benefit of memory training programmes
Your working memory is essential in helping you cope with everyday life. Thanks to working memory, you can perform a mathematical calculation in your head or write down a phone number that you have just been told. Recent years have seen a growing interest in using training to expand cognitive functions in general, and working memory in particular. Brain training programmes have become big business, but they are also coming in for increasing criticism from the science community.
Earlier research indicated that computer-based exercises with a gradually increasing level of difficulty could improve performance, not only of working memory, but also in IQ tests. According to Laine and Soveri, however, there is no reliable evidence that training can boost the capacity of working memory, improve intelligence or make your everyday tasks flow more smoothly.
“In the light of our research results there is every reason to take a dim view of the marketing claims used for commercial brain training programmes. There is already one case in the United States where a company is facing millions of dollars in fines as a consequence of unfounded claims in connection with such a programme,” says Laine.
Research can identify more effective training
While the benefits of working memory training are limited, according to the present knowledge, there is still every reason to continue the research into factors that impact on training results. Laine’s research group are looking for factors that predict good exercise results and long-lasting benefits.
“It is important to carry on with the research. Even small positive changes can be significant for people who are experiencing problems with working memory,” Laine says.