This Is America

The case for progress

Thanks for the Memories

Review of “The Working Memory Advantage,” by Tracy and Ross Alloway

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” Ophelia tells Hamlet, “pray you love, remember.” Apparently, she was right. In addition to making food more flavorful, psychologist Mark Moss recently demonstrated, rosemary enhances working memory.

Defined as the conscious processing of information, working memory is a foundational cognitive skill, as important or even more important than IQ, Tracy Alloway, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida, and Ross Alloway, the CEO of Memosyne Ltd., remind us. In The Working Memory Advantage, the Alloways examine the role of working memory in many areas of life and offer practical suggestions for strengthening it. Well informed, but, at times, glib, the book is a useful, but not always reliable, introduction to the field.

The Alloways do not always distinguish between the associative and the causal role played by the working memory. Although they acknowledge that many of the studies they cite are only “suggestive,” they often run with them. “It is only a matter of time,” they claim, before links between working memory and Alzheimer’s “will be revealed.” A poor working memory, they imply, “is an underlying factor in dyslexia.” Checking a friend’s status updates on Facebook, they claim,” can be great for your working memory.” Based on “what we know about the brain and nutrition,” they write, a glass of milk, cream in coffee, and daily portions of cheese “may actually provide some benefit for working memory.”

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“Complexity,” the Alloways insist, “is the archenemy of achievement.” To give the working memory “a smart way” to achieve goals, they recommend that they should be “whittled down to a few words, such as Sales Manager.” They advise older adults not to retire, because it is “inevitable” that those who stop working, stop thinking: “The sooner you retire, the sooner you will struggle to put two and two together, the sooner your keys will end up in the ice cube tray, and the sooner you will put yourself at risk for dementia.”

The book loses its focus, moreover, when the Alloways sketch out their “Wutopia,” where city streets, airports, work spaces, schools, and homes are laid out with working memory in mind, and take readers on a journey to “the dawn of working memory,” to track structural changes in the prehistoric brain (and assert that the lives of our Stone Age ancestors, which may have included “industrial-scale fishing,” “weren’t so different” from those depicted in the 1960s TV show, The Flintstones). And, I feel compelled to add, the Alloways do not enhance their credibility when they spend five pages in their book making claims for the benefits of the computer-based program they developed to enhance the spatial and mathematic skills, mental processing, and ability to focus of children and teenagers—and offering a free trial of the product their company sells.

The Working Memory Advantage is at its best—and its best is very good—when the Alloways provide exercises to stretch working memory. They counsel parents to limit the TV time of their kids (and eliminate it for children under two); resist entreaties to read the same story over and over and, instead, read new stories and ask questions about them; and teach youngsters to prepare meals using quick-and-easy recipes, delivered to them verbally (so they can use working memory to keep the steps in mind). They provide methods for learning how to multiply numbers without the assistance of a calculator. Running, they indicate, is good because it activates the pre-frontal cortex. Running barefoot is even better because it can be unpredictable, requires “controlled attention to changes in terrain,” and “has the added stimulus of touch.”

Useful in their own right, their tips for coaches have more general applications as well. While drilling athletes in a particular activity, they advise the coach to shout out its name, “Jump” or “Sprint.” When the movement has been internalized, they suggest telling them to switch to a different movement, like a “pushup,” when they hear the instruction to “Jump,” thus forcing the athletes to “use working memory to inhibit a trained response.” When teaching a new skill, the Alloways advise coaches to allocate more time to “warm-up” to “pre-fatigue players” so that they will temporarily lock down the working memory, making it “easier for the cerebellum to absorb the feeling of the athletic movements.”

If you have ever gotten lost while driving, gotten directions from a passerby (“go to the second stop sign, take a left, continue for four blocks, make a right, and you’ll see a sign for Route 287”), and failed to keep all of them in your head, you know how important a robust working memory is. Tracy and Ross Alloway make a compelling case that working memory can be strengthened through “small but crucial tweaks in your daily habits.” It’s a lesson worth remembering.

Glenn C. Altschuler, Ph.D., is the Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, and The Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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