Can you boost your memory?

Can computer games boost memory? Are there tricks to help people with ADHD or dyslexia? And what does anxiety do to your memory capacity?
02 June 2014

Interview with 

Dr Joni Holmes, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge.


Can computer games boost memory? Are there tricks to help people with ADHD or dyslexia? And what does anxiety do to your memory capacity?Sleeping Student

Ginny Smith spoke to Dr Joni Holmes from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, who works on short term memory.  

Joni -   So, I'm interested in short term memory and a specific aspect of short term memory that we call working memory and there's a very subtle but important distinction between just short term memory and working memory.  So, short term memory is about remembering something that you've just heard or that you've just seen.  Your working memory is all about remembering that information, but also being able to use it in something that you're doing right now.  So, I'm going to do a very short experiment if that's okay.  And so, what I want you to do now in your head is listen to these two numbers and then add them together.  Okay, so what is 25 plus 19?

Audience -   44.

Joni -   44. So, what you did there to work that answer out was you used your working memory.

Audience member -   I added 20 and subtracted 1.

Joni -   Absolutely.  It's a good way to do it.  In order to do the sum, what all of you will have done is remember the two numbers that I gave you.  You remembered 25 and 19, and then you actually did something with that information.  You added the numbers together so you did some processing.  So, you were using your working memory.  What we know when it comes to learning in the classroom is that this working memory system is really important.  If you're sitting in the classroom, hearing some information from the teacher, you've got to hold that in your working memory and be able to use that information to carry out the activity that's been set.  So, in every classroom task that a child is given, they need to use their working memory.

Ginny -   Now, we actually have a little task for you guys to try now.  So Kate and Hannah, do you want to tell them what they're going to have to do?

Kate -   Yeah, we want to see how good your short term memory is.  I know it's exam season, but adults, you're in this as well.  It's not just the kids who have to remember at the moment.  So, what we're going to do is we're going to show you a list of words and I'm going to give you a minute to look at the words and try and memorise them.  As soon as we turn it off after a minute, you've got your pens and paper under your thing, now's the time to get them out,  I'm going to need you to write down all the ones that you can remember.  Everyone ready because you're going to be comparing these answers to your kids, so you better do well adults or there's going to be hell to pay. Hannah, do you want to bring up the list?  You have one minute.  Don't write them down.  Just try and memorise as many as you can of them.

Hannah -   So, we've got nine, swap, cell, ring, love, lamp, plugs, apple, table, sway, army, bank, fire, hold, worm, clock, horse, colour, baby, sword, desk, find, bird, and rock.  Has that been a minute?  I didn't count.

Kate -   Not quite, no.

Hannah -   I should be doing the countdown music.

Kate -   Turn them off.  Write down as many as you can remember please.  No conferring.  I can see you.

Hannah -   No conferring.  We can see you.

Kate -   Right.  I want to find out how many you guys have.  Who thinks they've got the most in the entire room?  Who's really proud of the list that they have?  One hand!

Hannah -   So George, with his wonderful cerebellum thinks that he's got the most.  How many have you got George?  So, don't tell them, but how many?

George -   14.

Kate -   Wow!

Hannah -   Has anyone got anything close to 14?

Ginny -   Can we do a hands up and see who's got how many?

Kate -   How many do we have in the beginning - something like 20.  No one's got 20 seeing as no one admitted having 14.  Who's got 15?  14?  One person.  13, 12, 11?  One person at the back has got 11.  10?  A few more have got 10, about 5.  9?  About 4 have got 9.  8?  5 have got 8.  7?  Yeah, about - oh, I can't count anymore.  5?  We've got 7.  6?  Loads have got 6.  5?  3 have got 5.  4?  3?  We're getting fewer and fewer people as we go down the list.  The average that we can hold in our short term memory is between 5 and 9.  So, it's 7 plus or minus 2.  So, we did actually get most of you getting between 5 and 9 writing down.  So, that's probably your round average.  Don't worry about it if you got those.  So, I just want to know what kind of words you got.  Can I ask you down the front?  What's your name and where are you from?

Nestor -   My name is Nestor Syar and I'm from France.

Kate -   What kind of words have you got written down there?

Nestor -   Bird, sword, worm, and clock.

Kate -   Quite a few people have got those same words.  So, we're seeing a lot of worm and rock - those kinds of words and that's because it's actually a lot easier for us to remember concrete words like worm and rock and more difficult to remember words like - probably, what's the most abstract one there?  Sway.  Did anyone get sway?  Quite a few of you got sway.  The adults though we're seeing are getting sway.

Hannah -   Who out of you got nine and swap?  So, most of you got the words nine and swap which is the first ones that I read out actually.  So actually, it's more likely to get the first ones and the last ones as well.  So, you're more likely to remember the first thing that somebody reads out because you think, "Oh God!  I've got to remember this.  Let me get it in my head now" and then the last one.  So, what we're going to do, in just a minute's time, we're going to hear about some more memory strategies to help you remember more.  We'll have another go to see if we can get more right.

Ginny -   A round of applause everyone for doing really well.  So Joni, coming back to you, what kind of interventions do you use to help children who have problems with these short term memory tasks?

Joni -   So, there are different ways that we can work with children who've got memory problems.  For many years, we didn't think we could improve people's memory directly.  So, we've done a lot of work in schools with teachers, getting them to think about trying to reduce the amount of information that they give children.  We can also help children to use strategies.  So for example, you might try to look for meaningful links between words or the information you're trying to remember.  In the task there, many of you probably remembered bird and worm and that's because they're related to each other.  So, it's much easier if you can make links between the things you're trying to remember.  You might also want to think about chunking the information or grouping it together.  So, instead of remembering lots of separate words, you could form a sentence for example and that might help you to remember it because there are less bits of information to remember.  But the main focus of my research is actually now on directly trying to train memory skills in children.  We do this by using the very controversial brain training.  So, we use computerised memory training.

Ginny -   I'm sure most of us here have heard of brain training.  I don't know about you, but I've heard quite a lot of kind of debunking of it.  People saying that you might get better at the task you're practicing, but that doesn't relate back to real life.  Is that something you find with the children you're working with?

Joni -   Yeah, absolutely.  In many of the studies that we've run now, we've looked at trying to train children to remember, for example, lists of words or locations that might light up on the computer screen.  What we see is that children improve on these kinds of tasks.  We also see they get better at other tasks that are very similar to those tasks they've been training on.  But we know obviously that working memory is important for learning, so we expected that if we could improve children's working memory ability that we would then see improvements in how they could learn in the classroom.  We haven't yet been able to do this and I think there are many people out there, I think I'd describe brain training as a bit of a marmite kind of intervention -  you love it or you hate it.  And people do have very extreme views.  And so, it has been debunked, but I think that that's a very extreme stance to take.  What we know is that if you're training on these memory tasks, you get better on tasks that have a very similar kind of feel to them.  So, what we're doing in our current research is trying to take the activities that children train on and trying to make them more like how children use their working memory in the real world.

Ginny -   So, people who have these working memory problems, do they tend to go alongside other developmental disorders or are there people who just specifically have memory problems?

Joni -   So, what we know is that children who've got a whole range of developmental disorders, this includes children who've got specific language impairment as Susan was talking about, children who have ADHD, children who have dyslexia - they would typically have working memory impairments as well.  So their working memory capacity, the amount of information that they can remember, is typically less than the child of the same age who hasn't got that problem.  But what we also know is that working memory problems can occur even without a diagnosis of another disorder.

Ginny -   So, has anyone got any questions on working memory and how that relates to learning?  I think we've got one from Kate.  Is it from you or from the audience?

Kate -   It's from me.  I wanted to know.  We had two guys - George and his dad over here - who both got 14, the highest out of anybody.  Is there some sort of genetic link that maybe they both did well together?

Joni -   Or were they cheating?

Kate -   Or were they cheating?

Audience member -   When you flashed them back up, I actually got 13.

Kate -   It's still pretty high, 13 or not.

Audience member -   I put them together in pairs which is...

Joni -   That's a very good strategy to use.

Kate -   So Joni, the question, is there a genetic link to memory abilities?

Joni -   There are heritability estimates which suggests that working memory is about 50% heritable. In terms of trying to identify any specific genes that might be related to your short term or working memory, this is something we don't yet know.

Ginny -   Lots of more research needed.

Joni -   Absolutely.

Ginny -   Any more questions?  Got one at the front here.

Simon -   Hi I'm Simon from Melbourne near Cambridge.  I was wondering if there were different triggers and can you see different triggers in how people remember?  So, I know I would've done better had I just read those words rather than listening to them being readout.  Do children react differently for different ways of learning?

Joni -   Absolutely.  I think that some children find it easier to remember things that they've heard.  Other children find it easier to remember things that they see.  And this probably just plays into what your natural strengths are.

Ginny -   Sarah, is that something you see when children are learning about physics and science as well, that different children learn in different ways?

Sarah -   Absolutely.  That's one of the main things I'm interested in actually, are the differences between different people and how some children may pick up on one thing very quickly and others, it's something else.  But there's so many differences between all of us that we don't really understand that well yet, I think it's very interesting.

Dokusha -   Hi.  I'm Dokusha from Cambridge.  I'm wondering whether the children remember things when they're happy.  Like, when they're clinging on to their favourite teddy bear or when they're at home, whether they learn better than in a new environment?

Joni -   So, what we know about trying to remember information is that if it's information that's important to you, if it's more salient then you're more likely to remember it.  If you find it interesting, you're likely to engage with it more and to remember it more easily.  We also know that the opposite of being happy - so, if you're feeling particularly anxious then that has a negative impact on your memory ability.  So, what happens is that the resources that you would use in your brain for remembering information are actually diverted and they're focusing on your anxious thoughts.  So, it can actually make your memory worse.

Simon -   Simon from Bassingbourn.  What's the brain training exercise that you've found to be generally the best one for kids to try?

Joni -   I think that's a very important question.  So, there are many different ways of training working memory.  Lots of different commercial products are actually now available.  In my research, I've just used one particular programme.  But what we know is that really, any kind of memory training programme produces very similar kinds of effects.  So, whether you use one of the commercial products off the shelf or you use something that a researcher might have developed in their own research lab, as long as people are having to remember information and the better they get, the more information they're asked to remember.  So, we're adapting it and challenging people.  What we know is that that's the key and that is what will actually yield benefits in memory performance.

Ginny -   Thanks, Joni.  That was Dr. Joni Holmes from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.  Now Kate, did you say we were going to have a go at remembering those words?

Kate -   Yes, we're going to see if we can catch up with George.  We haven't got time to brain train you all unfortunately.  I would if I could, but there are some tips on how we can improve.  So, we heard before that we can only really hold in our brain between 5 and 9 things, but by grouping things together and connecting them, that means we can hold more things than before.  So Hannah, if we can go back to the last set of things.  So, if I thought about an image of a baby on a horse with a sword, I'd group those three words together and that would just take up one piece of information.  So, if I come up with a number of images or stories to connect these together, I could hold more of them in my brain.  So, I'm going to give you another list of words now.  We're going to give you a minute again.  See if you can come up and think of images or stories to connect them altogether and then we'll write them all down again in the end.  I want to hear some of these images and stories.  So, we'll see what you guys come up with.  Are you ready?  I'm going to read them out as well for the radio audience so I apologise for distracting some of you.  Go...we got wonder, tennis, stiff, month, owl, hand, shy, alien, detail, farm, rock, serious, umbrella, village, method, swamp, manor, building, gender, time, kettle, history, pencil, pig, and odd.

Ginny -   I can see from the looks on some people's faces that they're coming up with quite amusing stories.

Kate -   They're thinking of some good stories, we can tell.  Hannah, blank screen please.

Ginny -   I think people are writing for longer than they were last time.

Kate -   Do you think they're writing for longer?  More remembered?  I hope so.  I hope this works.  Otherwise, you're going to let me down guys.  Everyone looks finished.  We'll bring them up again.  Who got more right than they did last time?  Loads of hands!  I'm a genius, I can make a million out of this.  Hello, what's your name and where are you from?

Maddie -   I'm Maddie from Bassingbourn.

Kate -   How many did you get right last time and how many did you get right this time, Maddie?

Maddie -   I got 8 right last time and 12 right this time.

Kate -   Four more than before.  That's really good.  So, what sort of images or stories did you think of?

Maddie -   I thought of a game of tennis between an owl and an alien and that the alien was shy and the owl was stiff.

Kate -   That is a very good image.  Excellent!  Can we have a round of applause for Maddie because that was beautiful? [clap]  Is there an adult who got more right this time than last time?  Over the front here...

Keith -   Keith from Cambridge again.  I got 7 the first time and 11 this time.  And obviously, the village farm has a pig and there was a band called the "Wonder Stuff" - wonder stiff.

Kate -   Very good.  Using things you already remember and adapting them.  That is a very clever strategy.  So, we had an improvement of 4 from Maddie.  Did anyone improve by more than 4?

Xian -   My name is Xian and I come from Montemitro in Italy.

Kate -   You miscounted.  That's okay.

Xian -   I miscounted.

Kate -   That's alright.  How many did you get right this time?

Xian -   I got 3 last time so this time I got 5.

Kate -   That's really good.  That's a really good improvement.  So, what did you think about while you were trying to remember them?

Xian -   I thought there was an odd tennis racket wondering about detail and that was swamps.

Kate -   An odd tennis racket wondering about detail in a swamp.  That is beautiful.  Can we have a round of applause for all of you please?


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