Having a hard time remembering your sibling’s phone number? Did you forget it was your 12th wedding anniversary the other day? Can’t remember how to do simple-but-not-really-that-simple long division?
If you answered yes to these memory-based questions, your brain doesn’t need time to rest and recuperate – in fact, it could use a vigorous workout.
Similar to a cardio workout for the heart, there are exercises you can do to help sharpen and refine your mind.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that one specific brain exercise significantly improved working memory, and even added a boost to brain activity. The findings were published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement earlier this week.
The aforementioned questions to begin this post are examples of working memory, also known as “mental work space” or “mental sticky notes”, allowing you to withhold relevant information. The brain exercise, called ‘dual n-back’ training, challenges people to continuously update information in their minds.
“It is very difficult, but people get pretty good at it, which is impressive,” lead author Kara Blacker, a former Johns Hopkins post-doctoral fellow in psychological and brain sciences, said in an interview with TODAY.
“They can get better at it… and that’s what’s improving working memory.”
The workout is somewhat close to the classic child’s game Simon, but with added complexity. It asks you to remember a sequence of information, and then recalling whatever was displayed a step previous. It gets more challenging as you’ll need to think two, three, and even more steps back.
Try the exercise for yourself here:
Participants in the study tried the dual n-back method for 30 minutes a piece, five days a week for a month. The results were significant: they showed a 30% improvement on working memory, and almost double the improvement of other using alternative brain exercises, according to Johns Hopkins University.
While the program utilized in the study isn’t available to the public, Recall the Game, an app developed by another group of researchers, is very similar.
The researchers still need to pinpoint the appropriate amount of time you should do this brain exercise for maximum memory value, but “just like working out and exercising physically, the more you do it is likely to result in more improvement,” Blacker said.
Along with improved memory, the participants also enjoyed a strong boost in brain activity, which was measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). Now that doesn’t mean they become ‘smarter’, as the exercise is designed to enhance only working memory, but it did change their brains, Blacker explained.
The final finding from the study was that those who were typically lower performers (re: had chronic poor memory) responded best to the training, showing the most improvement. This could be key for older seniors battling memory problems.
“It’s possible that could hold some promise for cognitive aging, Alzheimer’s and developmental disorders — populations that suffer from working memory deficits,” Blacker said.
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