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Wow! Learning new stuff is great. Remembering it is even better!

24Feb 2008

Ok, so last week I went to Chicago for two days of training in a new way of increasing your working memory. Wow.

I don’t get too excited about new stuff that comes on the market — anything, cars, weight loss programs, financial products, and especially in the realm of psychology and self-help. Given that I am now 50, I have been around the block a few times, I’ve been burnt more than once, and, as a result, am a fairly intense skeptic (especially about psych stuff.)

So let me tell you what’s up, and how it may apply to you or someone you know.

“Working memory” is this somewhat unusual term that most of us aren’t familiar with. Essentially, working memory is the ability to keep information “online” in our mind for a short period of time and to be able to use this information in our thinking.

Memory is remembering information. I say “2,5,8” and you say “2,5,8”. I tell you my name is “Paul White” and you try to remember it. I put my car keys down and I (hopefully) remember where they are.

Working memory is doing something with the information we are remembering. You are “working” with the information. So if I say “3 – 2 + 1 = ___”, you are not just going to remember the number sentence, but while holding onto it, you attempt to solve it. If you are going somewhere for an appointment you have been once before, you get the address, and then try to “pull up” previous information to help you make decisions on the best route to get there. Working memory is very closely associated with concentration.

Let me tell you instances where working memory problems are frequently experienced:

*Reading information, and not being able to remember what you just read (at the end of the page, when you finish a chapter, later that day).

*During a meeting, class or lecture, you are not able to listen, stay focused, and process the information while continuing to listen (you “space off”, get distracted, or get overwhelmed with too much information at once.)

*Having a number of tasks to do, making a “mental note” about them, and then not being able to remember what you needed to do.

*In the midst of an important conversation, you think of some point you want to make, but need to hold onto the thought while the other person finishes theirs. When they are finished, you cannot remember what you were going to say.

There are lots of examples (remembering phone numbers, people’s names, where you parked your car), but this will suffice. As you might deduce, working memory is a significant deficit for individuals with ADHD (don’t think “hyperactive”, think “problems with attention, concentration, focus”).

So here’s the deal. A relatively recent breakthrough (that is, the past 5 years) in research has shown that working memory can be significantly increased through the appropriate training process. The research originated in Sweden and a training program was developed, and further researched. In the last 18 months, this training program came to the U.S. and currently being used in research at Harvard, Stanford, Notre Dame, New York University, and other institutions.

The research was originally focused on ADHD students, then adolescents and adults, and then research was done with adult stroke victims. The findings show for all of these groups that they were able to improve both their verbal and visual-spatial working memory through the training, and that there were secondary effects in better attention, concentration, impulse control and complex problem-solving, etc. (See this whitepaper for a good summary of the early research.)

Ok. So what is this training program? It is called the Cogmed Working Memory training. Essentially, it is a computer-based training program accompanied by professional coaching to assist in getting the most from the program. The computer-based part can be done from your home, office or wherever. The training is designed to be done 5 days a week for 5 weeks, requiring about 45-60 minutes a day. The Cogmed coach assists the trainee in understanding the training, setting up a schedule and structure to consistently do the training, and then provides weekly feedback on the training. The coach has online access to the daily training sessions, how the trainee is doing on the various activities (there are 13 training activities), and provides feedback and encouragement on how to improve. (Interesting to me, the program was developed in Sweden so it can be done and coached over a distance, given its use of the Internet and telephone-based coaching.)

The training is not easy. It is not just a bunch of computer games. The program is designed to “push” the trainee, by keeping the activities at a demanding (but not too difficult) level. Early research with the training demonstrated that trainees would not consistent do the training, or complete the program without the assistance of a coach. With a coach, the program has demonstrated a 94% successful completion rate in North America.

So what is so exciting about all of this?

First, this is the first non-medication intervention for ADHD individuals that peer-reviewed research demonstrates significant and lasting positive effects on ADHD symptoms. So for ADHD individuals (or parents of ADHD students) that don’t want to take meds, want to get off their meds or that have negative side effects from medication, this is a viable alternative. (Additional new research is showing that the training provides additional help to those who are on medication.)

Second, physiological tests show that after completing the training program the brain functions differently in the areas of the brain (prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe) that are associated with attention, concentration, and executive functioning. And individuals with brain damage were helped through the training.

Finally, I think there are a number of potential fascinating applications of the training (that either are in the process of being researched, or have not yet been) including:

*Aiding older adults and “baby boomers” in sharpening their mental skills and memory

*Improving reading comprehension

*Helping dyslexics in reading decoding (sounding out words)

*Maximizing performance on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams

*Assisting executives in improving their concentration, focus and problem-solving.

If you are interested in more information, go to www.aboutworkingmemory.org and/or www.cogmed.com . Also, I took two professionals with me to Chicago who were trained to work as coaches under my supervision (the training is only available through certified psychologists or physicians) and we are providing training to individuals all over (including overseas). There are currently 70 practices certified in the U.S. and you can find one close to you on the Cogmed website, or we would be happy to serve you (or recommend someone close by). You can visit our website at www.workingmemorysolutions.com for more information.

Keep learning, and remembering!

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