If you've ever recalled the steps of a play in the middle of a basketball game or followed a recipe you read 10 minutes ago while cooking a meal, you've used your working memory. Working memory is the mental sticky note that allows us to hold onto important information while completing a task. This cognitive skill is the subject of a lot of mental exercises, but according to a new study published in Scientific Reports, not all training methods produce the same results. Researchers found that training with a specific strategy in mind for 30 minutes is just as effective as doing the same activities for a month with no strategy.
For their study, researchers at Åbo Akademi University in Finland separated 116 Finnish volunteers into three groups. The first group was given a working memory updating task to complete within a half-hour with instructions to use strategies like image visualization and semantic devices. Members in the second group were assigned the same task but weren't given any strategies to help them. The third group wasn't given any activity to complete and served as the control.
Based on evaluations given before and after the training games, participants who used mental strategies showed more improvement in their working memory skills than those who did not. Even the subjects who weren't instructed to use strategies performed better if they decided to use strategies on their own.
This challenges the idea that the key to such mind training is stretching your working-memory capacity. As long as you're using the right strategies, a short brain exercise session can take you a long way. Here are some mnemonics that can help you maximize your mental real estate.