Working memory capacity increase of 50 percent found in research
July 30, 2015
Climbing a tree or balancing on a beam can dramatically improve cognitive skills, according to a study recently conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Florida.
The study is the first to show that proprioceptively dynamic activities like climbing a tree, done over a short period of time, have dramatic working memory benefits.
Working memory (the ability to process and recall information), is linked to performance in a wide variety of contexts from grades to sports. Proprioception (awareness of body positioning and orientation) is also associated with working memory.
The results of this research, led by Ross Alloway, a research associate, and Tracy Alloway, an associate professor, recently published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, suggest that working-memory improvements can be made in just a couple of hours with these physical exercises.
The aim of this study was to see if proprioceptive activities completed over a short period of time can enhance working memory performance, and whether an acute and highly intensive period of exercise would yield working memory gains.
The UNF researchers recruited adults ages 18 to 59 and tested their working memory. Next, they undertook proprioceptively dynamic activities, designed by the company Movnat, which required proprioception and at least one other element, such as locomotion or route planning.
Working memory capacity increase of 50 percent; better than yoga
In the study, such activities included climbing trees, walking and crawling on a beam approximately 3 inches wide, moving while paying attention to posture, running barefoot, navigating over, under and around obstacles, as well as lifting and carrying awkwardly weighted objects. After two hours, participants were tested again, and researchers found that their working memory capacity had increased by 50 percent, a dramatic improvement.
The researchers also tested two control groups. The first was a college class learning new information in a lecture setting to see if learning new information improved working memory. The second was a yoga class to see if static proprioceptive activities were cognitively beneficial. However, neither control group experienced working memory benefits.
Proprioceptively dynamic training may place a greater demand on working memory than either control condition because as environment and terrain changes, the individual recruits working memory to update information to adapt appropriately. Though the yoga control group engaged in proprioceptive activities that required awareness of body position, it was relatively static as they performed the yoga postures in a small space, which didn’t allow for locomotion or navigation.
“This research suggests that by doing activities that make us think, we can exercise our brains as well as our bodies,” said Alloway. “This research has wide-ranging implications for everyone from kids to adults. By taking a break to do activities that are unpredictable and require us to consciously adapt our movements, we can boost our working memory to perform better in the classroom and the boardroom.”
Abstract of The working memory benefits of proprioceptively demanding training: A pilot study
The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of proprioception on working memory. It was also of interest whether an acute and highly intensive period of exercise would yield working memory gains. The training group completed a series of proprioceptively demanding exercises. There were also control classroom and yoga groups. Working memory was measured using a backward digit recall test. The data indicated that active, healthy adults who undertook acute, proprioceptively demanding training improved working memory scores compared to the classroom and yoga groups. One possible reason that the training yielded significant working memory gains could be that the training was proprioceptively dynamic, requiring proprioception and at least one other factor—such as locomotion or navigation—at the same time, which may have contributed to the improvements in working memory performance.
Ross G. Alloway, Tracy Packiam Alloway. The working memory benefits of proprioceptively demanding training: A pilot study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2015; 120 (3): 766 DOI: 10.2466/22.PMS.120v18x1
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