Donders Wonders

How to train your brain (capacity)? Some exercises are better than others

This post is also available in Dutch.

Memory training borrowed from one of scientific experiments improves cognition.

Image by w?odi. License CC0. Taken from Flickr.

Research experiments are similar to real games (you see this in the left picture), just more boring (the right picture gives an example of an experiment studying memory and language[i]).


The idea of cognitive enhancement (i.e., training our brain to become more productive) via entertaining computer games is certainly appealing. However, it is important to base these games on solid research that proves that a game can actually help you. For example, one can train memory capacity, increasing the number of items one can hold in memory. This could eventually lead to better productivity at work. If you’ve ever had problems handling multiple tasks at the same time or memorizing a new colleague’s name or their phone number, you are familiar with the limits of memory capacity.

Two simple tasks to measure working memory

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University tested which one of the two tasks usually used in scientific experiments improved working memory capacity more. Working memory is the ability to keep things in mind without having them in front of your eyes (imagine being at the beach while you’re actually in the office: these thoughts are supported by working memory). In the dual n-back task, participants usually see sequences of images and hear different letters spoken to them at the same time. The task is to remember if what participants saw and heard was the same as several rounds back. In the complex span task, participants have to monitor a sequence of letters while solving simple math problems after each letter. After each sequence of letters, participants have to recall the entire sequence. While the dual n-back task requires immediate, almost one-by-one, processing of the items in a sequence, the complex span task is focused on the order of the letters in the whole sequence at once.

Dual n-back task improves working memory performance more

Three separate groups of participants were asked to practice a task at home for a month. Each group was assigned either the dual n-back task, the complex span task, or a control task which was not supposed to have any training effects on memory. Before and after training, participants filled out several questionnaires regarding memory, attention, and intelligence.

Participants completed a set of cognitive tests after training. The researchers found that the group which practiced the dual n-back task had 30 percent higher scores on those cognitive tests than the group that practiced the complex span task. These results suggest that participants indeed improved their working memory as well as their overall cognition since they were also better at tasks that were different from the working memory task they were trained on.

This study does not explain why one task is better than the other but shows how working memory training can improve overall cognitive performance.  We need more research to understand whether a certain task really improves cognition and why it does so before implementing a brain game.

Written by Lara.

Edited by Mahur.

For more information check this link

[i] In this experiment, participants have to name the color of the ink of the letter independently of the written word (in this case “red”, not “yellow”). Then, subjects had to name the colors of the squares. This task is called Stroop task, and you could read more about it here.

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