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Do we learn to improve our working memory capacity without sitting WM tests?

Working memory capacity can be measured, but I wondered whether the only way to improve it is learning techniques for working memory tests (such as the digit span test)? I think I remember that working memory capacity is relatively stable in adulthood and reaches that level at a relatively young age in childhood. So I'm asking whether general education improves our WMC, not for supposed brain training techniques.

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I'm not a psychologist so be cautious about drawing conclusions from what I say.

Education can teach us to use our working memory more effectively by:

  1. Learning how to do better chunking (which sometimes comes at a cost of time and effort spent on recall and on creating the chunk, but this can be improved with practice).

  2. Using our strongest domain(s) when appropriate, taking into account our capacity and "chunking skills" in each domain.

  3. According to this answer:

The evidence for domain-specific modalities is largely based on the (lack of otherwise expected) interference between them.

This means that maybe you could spread your items-to-remember across different domains to use otherwise untapped capacity, and (based on information from the linked answer) the usage order of domains matters.

However, since some (if not all) of these methods come at a cost and require conscious effort, the advantages of remembering more this way are limited and not equivalent to increasing your actual working memory capacity.

Examples:

Remembering a number by the pattern it draws on a phone's unlock screen.

Remembering a shopping list by imagining a set of (memorable, ridiculous) images where each image includes 2 items, one of which is also included in the next image (1st image: items 1 and 2, 2nd image: items 2 and 3, and so on). Then you can recall the first image, and recall each next image by asking what other image included an item from the current image. This is a good example of how verbal/auditory memory isn't always the best choice for remembering a list, unless your visual memory is much worse.

Remembering a number by recognizing (mathematical or other) patterns in it, so you can reconstruct the number (or part of it) from these patterns.


While you didn't ask for "brain training techniques", training is part of learning, if you want to become educated on how to use your working memory more effectively, you will need to practice the methods and see them in action, and they involve using skills that will improve with more practice.

For more information, read about methods of memory champions - people who manage to quickly memorize many things, such as card decks, long numbers and speeches. Their methods can be used by anyone, you don't have to be an exceptional person to be able to do impressive things with your memory, I tried it myself and was surprized at how well and how easily it worked for me.

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Based on what I'll explain below, I'm going to have to say yes—but I don't know that there's a lot permanency to it.

I'm not a psychologist, but I do have low working memory and seem to notice when and how it improves and worsens (for me, personally). So, I can give you my personal anecdotal opinions (with no guarantees as to their accuracy, nor to how they might affect other people besides myself):

As a teenager, I seemed to notice dramatic gains in working memory through playing Chess regularly with a challenging, but realistic opponent (one I could work up to beating, rather than one that trounced me all the time no matter how much I practiced). These gains actually seem to last a long time (potentially up to several months after stopping), but they're initially very stressful (and later addictive) for me to work at gaining, and after that long time has elapsed and the benefit is gone, I don't know that they have any lasting benefit with regard to working memory. It seemed to take a few weeks of serious playing to get a particularly nice effect. It's important to note that at the time, I was not impulsive in my decisions, and I analyzed all my options before making a move (rather than using intuition). I didn't memorize moves in advance. Finding a proper Chess opponent is difficult. The stress comes back when the working memory goes.

The Chess seemed to help me with decision-making, and foreseeing obstacles and solutions (outside of Chess). It improved the number of things I could foresee in my working memory, and such.

I discovered that listening to audiobooks while typing out what I heard (as best as I could), seemed to improve my working memory (and my typing speed).

Recently, I discovered that practicing four-part songs on a digital piano seemed to increase my working memory (including as it pertains to story-writing). I like this method quite a bit, and it's what I do now.

Stress seems to decrease my available working memory, while comfort seems to increase it.

I think memorizing paragraphs of text every day for a long time actually had a negative impact on my working memory (although it might have had initial gains). I think the reason is that I wasn't working on long-term retention, but just on like one or two-day retention. I tried memorizing too much stuff.

I'm light-sensitive, and it seems that some kinds of light can negatively impact my working memory.

Some drugs are supposed to impact working memory.

So you know, here is a list of situations that require working memory that I struggle with:

  • Taking directions (people usually lose me after the first two steps)
  • Audio lectures
  • Reading (Even though I know what all the words mean, I sometimes have to reread a paragraph several times)
  • Answering questions that require me to make a decision
  • Conversations
  • Explaining things I know, vocally
  • Doing much of anything when I'm nervous
  • Transitioning between activities
  • Completing/ending activities
  • Taking notes (yes, that's a coping mechanism that just isn't ideal)
  • Consulting multiple sources to complete an assignment
  • Telling people what I just read. The need to do so seems to take the working memory required to remember the stuff I read.
  • Knowing what people are talking about, especially if they they answer simple questions with long stories (instead of with one word or one sentence answers).
  • Helping people with their computer software-related stuff. I still do it, successfully, but I usually have to waste a lot of time listening to them talk about stuff that I just can't process, before I do it.
  • Taking messages for other people
  • Making commitments wherein it wasn't my idea to make the commitment; I mean if someone asks, Will you do such and such after you finish what you're doing? I prefer them just to ask after I finish instead.
  • In-class assignments (where the teacher tells the assignment vocally, without writing it down)
  • Listening to people, especially if they talk slowly (it's easier for me to understand people that talk fast, because I can fit it in all at once more easily)

However, I'm good with some of the working memory tests they give. Like, where they ask you to repeat back numbers. That's not really a challenging environment for me by comparison to the above. Numbers are easy because they're in small, separable chunks, and they have simple meanings, often without much context. Numbers are also easy to repeat quickly. Words in a conversation or in instructions are more difficult, because they're bigger and involve more things, and not just a linear process that requires little effort. Plus, it's harder to get distracted with numbers. I can remember a license plate number a lot more easily than I can remember a list of three or four things someone else wants me to do.

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