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While programs to improve students' working memory are among the hottest new education interventions, new studies are calling into question whether exercises to improve this foundational skill can actually translate into greater intelligence, problem-solving ability, or academic achievement.
Working memory is the system the mind uses to hold information during decisionmaking and analysis. As much as half of the variation in individual intelligence can be explained by differences in working-memory capacity, research shows. Working memory has come to be considered by researchers and educators as a key leverage point in boosting brainpower overall—and programs designed to strengthen it are already finding their way into some schools and homes.
But a systematic review of 23 studies on working-memory training programs, published online last month by the journal Developmental Psychology, found such training produced few long-term benefits to working-memory skills and no improvements to other cognitive skills like verbal ability, attention, word decoding, or arithmetic.
And a randomized, controlled study to be published online next week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that improving on a key task used in working-memory training did not lead to improvements on any of a battery of 17 cognitive-ability measures, including problem-solving intelligence, multitasking, and perception speed.
"I'm a little torn," said Thomas S. Redick, an assistant psychology professor and working-memory researcher at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus and the lead author of the randomized trial. "I'm happy to see an application of basic research being used in the classroom, but I'm not sure it's ready for prime time. For it to already be implemented in classrooms, particularly in a time of budget cuts, makes me wonder whether it might not be the most effective use of resources."
Brain training, and especially working-memory training, has become big business thanks to the confluence of increased research in neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to change physically in response to experience—and rising interest in brain boosting from aging Baby Boomers and achievement-focused parents.
The San Francisco-based market-research firm SharpBrains estimates that between 2005 and 2009, the worldwide market for "brain-fitness software," including working-memory training programs, rose 31 percent, to $295 million, with $148 million of those purchases coming from the United States. There are already more than a half-dozen widely used programs intended to train working memory alone, including Pearson's Cogmed Working Memory Training, Memosyne Ltd.'s JungleMemory, and Mind Sparke's Brain Fitness Pro.
"The brain-fitness software industry is only in its infancy," wrote SharpBrains Chief Executive Officer Alvaro Fernandez in an online commentary on the market. "It is an emerging and largely unregulated market where many products have limited clinical validation and often present confusing claims that make it difficult for consumers to separate wheat from chaff."
Research by Nelson Cowan, the director of the Working Memory Lab at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has shown that a child's working-memory capacity naturally increases as he or she ages. While 7-year-olds typically can handle three to five "chunks" of unrelated information at a time, by age 12, children can handle about seven, as many as adults.
Neuroplasticity research has also shifted the field's conception of how the brain works from a computer hard-wired with skills to a muscle that can be built up with exercise.
"These neuroplasticity models are kind of similar in terms of driving changes to the brain at a physiological level to what you need to do to build muscles: You need to do lots of reps; it needs to be frequent and intense," explained Paula A. Tallal, a co-director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
"It needs to be individually adaptive; I can do this over and over again, but I'll do better if I start with a weight, and I need a weight that's right for me," she added, "and you need to give timely rewards based on the child's response."
"The neurons that fire together wire together, but only if they get reinforced by rewards," Ms. Tallal said at a presentation earlier this year before the American Educational Research Association.
That's how most working-memory training programs operate. A student plays one or a battery of concentration games that adapt to each response and become increasingly difficult. The student might have to remember the position of a shape on a grid, coupled with the color or type of shape, and recall that shape-type or position after seeing several other grids in a row—an exercise commonly called an "N-back" test. He might have to remember words flashed on the screen at the same time numbers are heard through headphones or recall the direction of a series of arrows that make a pattern.
Researchers are pretty much in agreement on the brain-as-muscle metaphor, and many studies have confirmed that if someone practices a task, be it a cabbie driving the streets of London or a student in Chicago recalling the direction of arrows, that person will improve in that task and build the neural pathways associated with doing it. But researchers don't agree on whether doing a specific exercise will build a student's ability to do other tasks or enhance general brain capacity—in the same way that climbing stairs both builds leg muscles and strengthens the heart.
"No one doubts if you train yourself on a task, you get better at that task. The real test is … does it increase your brain power generally?" Mr. Cowan said. "I'm almost convinced myself it ...