The Right Kind of Practice May Give You the Memory You Want

New research suggests simple mental practice can improve your memory.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

If you watch network television for any time at all, you’ve no doubt seen advertisements for a memory supplement “made from jellyfish.” The claims and testimonials in commercials like these sound convincing. You might even suggest that an older relative take the supplement to avoid the dreaded decline that seemingly will occur otherwise. 

As with a number of other supposed memory supplements, however, experts have questioned the strength of the evidence for the effectiveness of the product's active ingredient, apoaequorin. Indeed, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has actively sought to have the ads removed. 

What else can you do, then, to ensure you maintain your memory? For decades, researchers in the field of cognition and aging have developed non-pharmacological training methods that can easily be adapted to individual use. Many of these follow the “use it or lose it” philosophy, meaning that any exercise is better than none. However, they also add techniques that, if practiced regularly, could build on the simple use-it, lose-it principle.

Recent neuroscience research by the University of Michigan’s Alexandru Iordan and colleagues (2020) is the latest to add to the growing body of evidence of so-called “neuroplasticity” in older adults. The concept of neuroplasticity is an important one in the field of aging, implying that the brain can adapt to age-related changes. Loss in one area of the brain, in other words, can be compensated for by gains in others. The particular model tested by Iordan et al. has the graphic name of “CRUNCH,” which stands for “Compensation Related Utilization of Neural Circuits Hypothesis.” Evidence accumulating in support of CRUNCH indeed suggests that this compensation process happens naturally. The question is whether there are steps you can take to strengthen those neural circuits even more to prevent memory decline as you get older.

The researchers, working with CRUNCH’s developer Patricia Reuter-Lorenz, tested a novel training method that they believed could capitalize on the brain's normal adaptation process to shore up the working memory of older adults. You use your working memory all the time when you either try to learn new information or retrieve information stored somewhere in your long-term memory repository. An easy way to think about working memory is to ask yourself what you’re thinking right now. It’s these thoughts, your waking consciousness, that reside in your working memory.

The training in working memory used by Iordan et al. took place over a two-week period during which the neural activation of younger and older adults was measured three times using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). If the training was effective, then older adults should show greater responsiveness on fMRI in the brain areas involved in working memory rather than firing up their entire neural apparatus, reducing their cognitive efficiency.

To understand this process, consider a situation in which you’re trying to hit a target on a tree using a softball. You could hit the target if you were able to throw 10 balls at it, but you’d be wasting 9 of those balls. Instead, you’d be better off learning to aim the one softball at the target so that it results in a sure hit. In a similar way, older adults may use CRUNCH to compensate for reduced working memory efficiency, but it would be more effective to improve those brain areas that actually are required for successful performance of those types of memory tasks.

With this background, now consider the nature of the tasks themselves. On each test trial, participants viewed a computer screen that showed them a set of letters for 4 seconds, followed by a cross on the middle of an otherwise blank screen. Then they saw a probe letter, which was or was not one of the original set, for 2 seconds, and had to decide whether they had seen that letter. Older adults saw sets ranging from 4 to 8 letters and younger adults saw sets that ranged from 5 to 9 letters. 

The trials that gave participants a chance to practice involved a similar task, but instead of simply testing participants, the experimenters varied the set size according to a participant’s performance on the previous trial. If they achieved 86% or better accuracy, the set size went up by one letter, and if their accuracy was less than 72%, the set size went down by one letter. There were 10 days of training sessions, with 6 blocks of 14 trials per day.

Returning to the comparison to hitting a target with a softball, this training would be like letting you stand farther from or closer to the tree depending on how often you could hit the target. As you gained more practice, your distance should gradually increase.

The research question then became whether, after training, participants would increase their brain activation only as the set size increased or, in other words, as the task genuinely required more neural resources. Having the younger control group allowed the researchers to compare the effects of training in the older group, so there was not a traditional experimental control group of older adults who received no training at all. Given that practice by definition could not be compared to a “control,” this approach seemed warranted.

The findings supported the prediction that training would allow older adults to tailor their recruitment of brain regions to the nature of the task. Over the course of practice, the older adults focused their neural resources more effectively, leading the authors to conclude that their brains had indeed become more “young-like.” Furthermore, another apparent benefit of training was increased communication among brain regions as the older participants processed the working memory tasks. This increased functional connectivity can further augment benefits of training in targeting brain activation to the nature of the task by allowing brain regions to "talk to" each other more effectively.

Translating the experimental task to your daily life, the training might be as simple as forcing yourself to remember longer and longer random number and letter sequences, backing off when you make errors and moving ahead when you’re able to do so with accuracy. You can even use playing cards, Scrabble tiles or other household objects as stimuli that allow you to increase your set size ability.

These simple memory training exercises might have another benefit. It has to do with your self-confidence, or what researchers call "memory self-efficacy." How many times have you made an error in remembering a phone number or someone’s name because you were so worried about making an error?

To sum up, the training method used by Iordan et al. seems to be quite simple and it clearly has no costs associated with it. Along with your ability, your beliefs in your own competence may rise, providing the basis for less “crunching” and more smooth sailing in your own memory performance.

References

Iordan, A. D., Cooke, K. A., Moored, K. D., Katz, B., Buschkuehl, M., Jaeggi, S. M., Polk, T. A., Peltier, S. J., Jonides, J., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2020). Neural correlates of working memory training: Evidence for plasticity in older adults. NeuroImage, 217, doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116887