Can computer games improve working memory? A look at the positive effects of digital technology on cognition (and key studies)

tdixon Cognitive Psychology, IB Psychology HL Extensions, Key Studies Leave a Comment

Can computer games improve working memory? This post explores the research.

The following has been adapted from our exam revision book: IB Psychology: A Revision Guide (available here). This is relevant for the working memory model and also for the HL extension: the (positive) effects of technology on cognitive processes and the reliability of cognitive processes. In this blog we look at the positive effects of computer games and other technology on the reliability of working memory and its capacity.

Working memory is information that we are conscious of at any one time. More specifically, it is “…the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks” (Cowan, 2013).

Before you go any further, it’s essential that you grasp what “working memory” is or the following will be difficult to comprehend. If you’re not sure, I recommend playing some working memory games and checking out the first couple of minutes of this video I made about the working memory model.

Working memory capacity refers to how much information we can hold in our minds at any one time. This capacity has been linked to many things, including intelligence and academic achievement. Therefore, kids with poor working memory capacity (i.e. unreliable working memory capabilities) struggle in school and often get in trouble. This is a problem for the kids, their parents and teachers so researchers have been looking at ways to help improve working memory capacity.

One method that has been developed to improve working memory is the use of computer games. This has become a multi-million-dollar industry. These games are designed to be fun and engaging, like ordinary video games, but they require kids to use their working memory.

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Try to solve this for x without using a pen and paper. You’ll start thinking to yourself and moving around the numbers – that little voice in your head working with the numbers if your working memory. (I don’t know the answer – perhaps someone can post it in the comments?) (Source: wikipedia)

Key Study #1: Working memory games and improved attention (Klingberg et al. 2005):

This study demonstrates the positive applications of understanding working memory processes as it shows we can design computer games to improve the working memory capacity of children and to reduce attention problems. 42 kids with ADHD were assigned to two conditions: a computer game designed to improve working memory that gradually got harder(treatment group), or the same game but not designed to stretch their capacity (control group). The kids were expected to play the games for around 40 minutes a day, for five days a week. The kids were tested after five weeks of treatment and again after three months and the results showed that the kids in the treatment group had a significant improvement in their working memory capacity. Their parents also reported reduced symptoms of inatten­tion and hyperactivity. This is one example of the positive effects of technology on the reliability of cognitive processes, in this case working memory capacity and attention.

  • You can watch a TED Talk of Klingberg explaining his research here.

Because the use of computer games to improve working memory has become a massive industry and field of research, Simons et al. conducted a massive review of numerous studies that investigated the effects of video games on working memory.¹

Key Study #2: Review of the effects of video games on working memory (Simons et al. 2016):

This study was an international collaboration of 133 scientists and practitioners. What they concluded from their review was that the games can help performance on closely related tasks (e.g. n-back or span board tasks). However, they found that the tasks had limited transfer to other related or general cognitive tasks. What this means, for example, is that the games might improve the kids’ scores on the span-board task (one task that was used in Klingberg’s study) but if they improved on this task, it doesn’t mean it was transferred to other cognitive skills, like reading comprehension, the ability to inhibit impulsive thoughts and actions, or improving long-term memory. They also found numerous flaws in many of the studies that claimed to demonstrate the positive effects of these programmes.

Exam Tips:

  • If you revise the effects of technology on the reliability of cognition, you only need to study two topics because if the question asks about “cognitive processes” you can write about the reliability of cognitive processes.
  • Using an example of a negative effect of technology on working memory would make for a good discussion.
  • Any study that examines working memory can be used to demonstrate the applications of the working memory model (i.e. can show a strength of the model).

Conclusion

From the above studies it’s clear that we need to make sure our conclusions of the effects of video gaming on working memory are tentative. Firstly, Klingberg et al.’s suggests that they can have positive effects and improve the reliability of working memory. However, Simon et al.’s advises us to be a little more cautious – the benefits might not transfer to other tasks, which makes any improvement rather useless.


References
  • Klingberg, Torkel, Elisabeth Fernell, Pernille J. Olesen et al. “Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD-A Randomized, Controlled Trial.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 44.2 (2005): 177-86.
  • Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & L., E. A. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest17(3), 103–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100616661983

¹It might be important to note that it’s common that the research conducted on the effects of computer game training on working memory and cognitive skills is funded by the companies making the computer games. 

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