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Working memory is the most important area of cognitive function you can exercise and strengthen to improve your fluid intelligence. Working memory is your capacity to temporarily store and process information needed for simple and complex tasks such as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning. This is the cornerstone for improving intelligence and will be the focus of this chapter.

Consider solving a complex problem. There are always multiple variables that must be considered. Your working memory allows you to temporarily store and analyze these variables from different perspectives.

Here's another way to look at it. A novel problem is like a jigsaw puzzle. The more complex the problem, the more pieces in the puzzle. But the pieces to this puzzle are not laid out on the table in front of you, they are in your head. Your working memory is responsible for keeping these pieces in your brain, and for piecing them together. When you enhance your working memory two things happen. You can store and organize more pieces of a puzzle in your memory and retain them longer before they fade from your memory. It makes sense that improving your working memory would make you better at solving many varied types of problems.

How Can We Improve Our Working Memory?

You will improve your working memory by making the lifestyle and dietary changes discussed in this regimen and engaging in aerobic exercise. Enhancing the three driving forces behind all cognitive function will improve your working memory. If you have more neurons, more synaptic connections, and more efficient neuro-transmission, your working memory will be more proficient. Certain nootropics target the key neurotransmitters involved in working memory, (This will be covered in the nootropics chapter.) but you can also improve your working memory by challenging it with mental exercises.

The Dual-N-Back test was used in many of the studies that involved training working memory and was shown to improve scores on IQ tests. This is the most important mental exercise that you can engage in. The article listed above went on to say, “researchers did not find an upper-limit for improvement, suggesting that more training could yield even better mental performance gains”. In this regimen you start with the simplest version, and introduce more complicated versions to keep the exercise both novel and challenging.

You can find a customizable version of the Dual N-Back test here. There is also a short tutorial on how to play the game. The “Dual” refers to the number of stimuli you must pay attention to. The “N” refers to the number of trials you must remember. For example, a “1-1-Back” test makes you pay attention to visual placement of shapes one trial back. You will see a square in a certain position. If the next square is in the same position you must respond. A “Dual-1-Back” will make you pay attention to a shape and a sound. If either the square or the sound matches the next square or sound, you will have to respond. You will give a different response depending on whether the sound or square matches. This challenge can become increasingly difficult. For example, a “3-8-Back” requires you to remember three different stimuli, up to eight trials back. Few people can accomplish that.

When should I advance to the next level? What if I get stuck on a level or cannot advance?

When you no longer find the current level challenging, it is time to move forward. Remember, novelty and the level of difficulty are the two most important factors. Personally, when I consistently score around 80% I advance to the next level. Also, do not worry if you become stuck at the same level for an extended period of time. As long as the test is challenging, your brain is getting a proper workout.

Once again consider weight lifting. When you start lifting weights you advance quickly but then reach a plateau. As long as you are struggling and being challenged, you are giving your working memory a satisfactory workout.

How much time should I spend on this? What level should I start on?

This study determined that "25 minutes of rigorous mental exercise a day" improves cognitive functions, and this study concluded that improvement and time were positively correlated. As mentioned earlier, they did not see a limitation of the improvement that was possible. Does that mean one does not exist? Of course not, it just has not been observed in studies thus far.

For the purpose of this regimen, I suggest you start by playing at least 25 minutes a day and only take a single day off in a given week if possible. When you weight lift, your muscles need time to recover. Your brain is different. You must concentrate as hard as possible with these exercises and you should feel mentally drained afterwards. You do not go to the gym and half-heartedly lift weights. You give it 100% and push yourself. But your brain recovers much more quickly than your muscles. Instead of needing days to recover, the human brain only needs hours. The exact amount of time I recommend you devote to this mental exercise is outlined in the regimen section at the end of this chapter.

Like weight lifting, it is best to start at a level that is easy, rather than hard. I started with 1-2-Back to get the hang of it, but found it too easy. I then advanced to a 2-1-Back, and quickly moved forward to a 2-2-Back. I found this level to be more challenging and plateaued there for a while before moving to a 2-3-Back. Trust me, it gets difficult quickly. It is pointless to start at a 2-3-Back unless you are familiar with this exercise as you will quickly become frustrated.

Other Ways to Train Working Memory

Even though the Dual-N-Back test is the primary exercise used to improve working memory, it will not be the only one. Despite being able to adjust its level of challenge and novelty, complete novelty is not accomplished. Also, you do not want to become bored as it is not exactly the most exciting mental exercise available.

Because an abundance of mental games are available over the internet, good ones can be hard to find. I have found many free games for your use; however, I use the service Lumosity to access a wealth of games. The most expensive option is around $60 dollars for one year of access. That is only $5 a month. If you find it affordable, I highly recommend it and will discuss it again later. Here is a list of other mental exercises you can choose from to improve your working memory.

This regimen does not put nearly as much emphasis on these games as it does the Dual-N-Back test. The problem with many of these games is their beginning level of difficulty. It can be a boring process to advance to the part of the game that actually challenges your brain. Once you do get there, you lose rather quickly. You only get a mental workout towards the end. That is why I like the Dual-N-Back test. It is challenging as soon as the game begins. When you select from these games, pick the ones that challenge you the most, right from the start. Also, feel free to search the internet for other working memory exercises. The list is not all-inclusive.

Chess

Chess is perhaps the single best board game you can play to enhance cognitive abilities. But you need to concentrate on your moves and anticipate those of your opponent. Consider the strategy of every move you make and how your opponent will react. Do this with multiple board pieces every turn and see how many scenarios you can keep track of in your head. Being able to play out multiple moves in your head will exercise your working memory, and your ability to reason. As your working memory improves, and you gain a better understanding how your opponent will react, you will be able to see many moves ahead. If you easily and repeatedly checkmate someone, do not play them again. If someone easily checkmates you, demand a rematch.