In Defense of Working Memory Training

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Scott Barry Kaufman speaks out in defense of working memory training:

Cook based his conclusion [that brain games are bogus] on a recent review by Monica Melby-Lervag and Charles Hulme. Partly consistent with Cook’s statement, the researchers saw little evidence for the generalization of working memory training to other mental skills such as reading comprehension, word decoding, and arithmetic. But that’s not all they found. The researchers also found that working memory training programs do produce reliable short-term improvements in both verbal and visuospatial working memory skills. On average, the effect sizes were moderate, but in some cases the effects were actually quite large and rather impressive for brief training regimes which only lasted 12 hours (on average). In fact, the largest effects were found for Cogmed working memory training programs. So while Cook is quite right to criticize Cogmed for claiming too much in their promotional materials, I believe he is too quick to dismiss large and reliable short-term improvements in working memory as meaningless in the real world.

Working memory involves the ability to maintain and manipulate information in one’s mind while ignoring irrelevant distractions and intruding thoughts. Working memory skills are essential for everyday intellectual functioning. Multiple research studies show that the inability to control one’s train of thought has important real world consequences, from poor reading comprehension to unhappiness. Therefore, just because a working memory training program doesn’t generalize to other cognitive functions doesn’t mean that the program doesn’t make people “smarter,” at least in respect to one key aspect of intellectual functioning. After all, intelligence isn’t a single ability. There is an emerging consensus among intelligence researchers that general cognitive ability is comprised of multiple interacting cognitive functions, and working memory is one of those crucial intellectual functions.

A telling finding of the Melby-Larvag and Hulme review (but not mentioned by Cook) is that age was a significant moderating variable on strength of training. Younger children (below the age of 10 years) showed significantly larger benefits from verbal working memory training than older children (11-18 years of age). This suggests that lumping people together who are at different stages in their cognitive development can obscure some truly meaningful effects. I imagine if the researchers also included elderly individuals in their analysis (e.g., those above the age of 60), they would have found effect sizes resembling what they found for the youngest age groups (alas, such cognitive decline is part of life).

But equally as troublesome, the researchers didn’t look at other crucial moderating variables such as personality, motivation, learning disabilities, mental illness, and socioeconomic status. I believe each and every one of these variables also matter, and ought to be considered in grand reviews of the literature.

Take personality. In one study, participants scoring higher in conscientiousness showed greater improvement in working memory during working memory training compared to less conscientious participants, but they showed less transfer to a measure of fluid reasoning. This suggests that highly conscientious individuals may develop task-specific strategies that prevent generalizing effects beyond the specific skills that are trained. What’s more, participants scoring higher in neuroticism (a proxy for anxiety) showed greater improvement on an easier version of a working memory task compared to participants lower in neuroticism, but displayed lower training scores on a difficult version of the task. It seems that in the easier version, higher levels of emotion may have been an advantage, allowing highly neurotic individuals to maintain their concentration and vigilance, whereas on the more difficult version of the task they became overwhelmed by their anxiety. These nuanced effects suggest that personal characteristics should be taken into account when considering the effectiveness of cognitive training.

Leave a Reply