Working memory training

The second approach to alleviating the difficulties that arise from a poor working memory is to improve working memory directly. Interventions have included approaches as diverse as mindfulness or meditation training (e.g. Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David & Goolkasian, 2010), neurofeedback (e.g. Cannon, Lubar, Gerke & Thornton et al., 2006), physical exercise (e.g. Lachman, Neupert, Bertrand & Jette, 2006), and long-term training on musical instruments (e.g. Jones, 2007). However, one approach rapidly gaining prominence within the psychological literature is cognitive training. Many commercial products have become available, are promoted as being backed by scientific research, and make promises such as improved grades in school, better control of attention and increased IQ.

The majority of training studies have been conducted using Cogmed working memory training software. This involves several verbal and visuo-spatial memory span tasks that have been embedded within video games. It is an adaptive program, in that trial-by-trial performance determines how much information a participant is required to remember. Participants are expected to engage in intensive training, completing sessions on a daily basis. Several studies have found improvements in working memory as a result of training using this program. For example, Kingberg, Fernell, Olesen and Johnson et al. (2005) found significant effects in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity- disorder (see also Holmes, Gathercole & Dunning, 2009; Klingberg, Forssberg & Westerberg, 2002). Thorell, Lindquist, Bergman and Bohlin et al. (2009) also found improvements in normally developing preschool children. There is, however, mixed evidence regarding the effects of transfer. That is the extent to which training also improves performance on other cognitive tasks. Klingberg et al. (2002) and Klingberg et al. (2005) reported improvements on the Raven’s progressive matrices. However, Holmes et al. (2009; see also Holmes, Gathercole, Place & Dunning et al., 2010) failed to find any improvements on measures of reasoning. Dahlin (2011) reported improvements on one measure of comprehension, but not on another two, and Holmes et al. (2009) did not find improvements on measures of reading or mathematics. 

An alternative approach to working memory training involves teaching children how to use memory strategies. For example, St Clair-Thompson, Stevens, Hunt, and Bolder (2010) asked children to use Memory Booster (Leedale, Singleton & Thomas, 2004), an enjoyable adventure game for children that teaches and encourages the use of rehearsal, visual imagery, creating stories, and grouping. Rehearsal is the simple repetition of verbal information. Visual imagery involves creating pictures in the mind to represent information that has to be remembered. Creating stories refers to generating a narrative that links together information in the form of a story. Finally, grouping involves using higher-order conceptual categories such as ‘living things’ to group items. St Clair-Thompson et al. (2010) found significant improvements in children’s working memory after using Memory Booster for a period of 6-8 weeks. Children also showed significant improvements on tasks of mental arithmetic and the ability to follow instructions in the school classroom. However, evidence suggests that memory strategies are often context specific and thus that transfer may be somewhat limited (see also Shipstead, Redick, & Engle, 2012).

It is also important to note that despite some encouraging findings from experimental studies, the extent to which training can help children with working memory and associated learning difficulties to progress educationally is still unclear. In particular, we do not know the long-term effects and extent of transfer of training. Many studies into working memory training have also been criticised for not placing enough emphasis on exploring relevant confounds, for not employing appropriate control groups, and for neglecting the importance of understanding the mechanisms underlying training based improvements (e.g. for a review see Shipstead, et al., 2012). However, the first step towards providing appropriate interventions is of course to identify working memory problems, something which is now substantially easier due to Lucid Recall.