How the Military Boosts Working Memory for Its Soldiers

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A study just published in Military Psychology reports some remarkable effects of cognitive training on Working Memory span, but before looking at that let’s get a handle on what Working Memory really means. Virtually everyone has heard of it, but most people mix it up with short term memory, like the ability to remember a phone number you just heard. Working Memory is very different. Although it does involve holding transient information, it’s really more about rapidly processing and manipulating it.

Think of it more like the skills needing for juggling balls as opposed to simply holding them. As such it’s a very high level mental capacity essential for awareness, comprehension and decision-making. Known as a core executive function, thousands of Working Memory studies have shown its critical effect in human performance as well as its central role in cognitive impairments when weakened. For this reason senior researchers in the Canadian Armed Forces sought to find effective methods for improving Working Memory span through training interventions. Specifically they were looking for a technique that could provide this when training time is limited.

Based on indications from previous research and the need for a task that can adapt to different levels of ability, they chose to test NeuroTracker in a 41 personnel study using active and passive controls. First they measured Working Memory baselines on three standardised measures, then the soldiers performed 10 single NeuroTracker sessions (6-8mins each) spread out over two weeks, and finally they retested on Working Memory.

Not surprisingly the active group (placebo training) and the passive group (no training) had negligible difference in scores, but the NeuroTracker-trained group showed significant boosts in all three measures used in the tests, leading the researchers to conclude:

“Our resulted demonstrated that…NeuroTracker training can lead to gains in verbal, visual, and matrix Working Memory span, registering medium to large effect sizes in the process…[NeuroTracker] training can benefit Working Memory capacity in a military sample”.

As the trained group showed higher than normal NeuroTracker learning rates, the level of transfer effects may not be consistent across other populations. That said, an intervention of approximately 65 minutes of training is extremely short as far as cognitive programs go, making the effects on high level cognitive function all the more surprising.

The published study: Military Psychology, Online First Publication, May 19, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/mil0000125

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