The ability to control your focus of attention is very valuable in a range of areas of life. At school, students need to focus to learn. Working memory, the ability to keep several relevant pieces of information in mind at once, is closely related to the ability to control your attentional focus and is key to effective performance in many jobs. Computer programmers need to hold several subroutines in mind to understand how the new software they are developing will fit together. Interviewers need to hold together the different things that a job candidate says to detect themes and inconsistencies. Scientists need to keep the different components of a new theory in mind to see how they interact to make predictions. Research has closely linked working memory to fluid intelligence.
Recent research has suggested that working memory can be trained using a special computer game. In addition to the direct effects on working memory, some recent research has suggested that regular attentional training has other benefits.
Several studies have found that regular attentional training can increase performance on Raven's Progressive Matrices and similar tests of fluid intelligence, or g(F). This is important because g(F) is a strong predictor of many life outcomes including job performance.
The best established attentional training game is called dual n-back, and you can download and use the software free. You can probably tell from the name alone that dual n-back isn't exactly the instantly addictive ‘Bejewelled Blitz', but it has its charms in an oddly meditative way. The game requires you to simultaneously remember letters (spoken aloud by the computer) and locations of squares on a tic-tac-toe style grid (presented visually, obviously). At the easiest difficulty level, you need only remember the letters or locations from the previous round. At harder difficulty levels, you need to remember letters or locations from longer ago (the round-before-last, and so on). Harder difficulty levels quickly become fiendishly difficult and demanding, but you can always ease off and practice at the easier levels.
On the PC, you can play the dual n-back game by downloading the open-source software Brain Workshop. On the iPad, you can download the IQ boost app (also free). Both of these versions of the game come with full instructions.
It should be noted that research in this area is at an early stage, and your results may vary. Anecdotal comments on various internet sites report a range of benefits, from significant to none at all. Still, it never hurts to try. A common theme is that it takes dedicated practice to achieve significant results.
Tried the dual n-back game? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.
Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net