The N-Back Test for Improving Memory – The Only Brain Training That Works?

Studies on brain training games have resulted in mixed reports. According to the research, brain training tools such as ‘Brain Age’ by Nintendo, or ‘Lumosity’ do work in as much as they help you to improve your ability at completing those games (1), but unfortunately there’s no evidence to suggest that the results are actually transferable to real world scenarios.

What this means, is that you can use a brain training game that challenges you to remember numbers, and as a result you will be better able to remember numbers when in those circumstances. What that doesn’t mean, is that you’ll be any better at maths, or at remembering where you put your car keys (2).

What’s also damning, is the fact that brain training games actually appear to be no more effective at improving brain function than a range of other games and practices that don’t market themselves in the same way. If you really want to improve your brain, then you’re probably just as well served by playing a game of chess, or of Sonic the Hedgehog. Or better yet, get out a pencil and some paper and start doing maths problems. Another downside, is that the results were largely found to be short-lived (3). It’s fair to say that more research is needed, but it’s certainly not as positive a picture as Lumosity would like you to believe.

But while brain training at large appears to be somewhat limited, there is nevertheless a fair amount of evidence supporting one particular form of brain training: the ‘Dual N-Back Test’.

What Is the N-Back Test?

The N-Back Test was originally developed by Wayne Kirchner as a way to measure working memory. In this test, the subject is given a sequence of stimuli, shown in order. When the stimuli matches what was shown ‘n‘ steps before, the subject then presses ‘stop’.

The number ‘n’ will increase, meaning that you need to remember more and more items as the game progresses.

For N = 1 then, you’d have to press stop at the end of the below sequence:

H T S N A L M P I O U U

Once you reached N = 2, you’d press stop at the end here:

L V S S T U N N V P O Q A T L M L

For N = 3:

A N N M M A U N T L Q W T U V T

And so it continues. This then challenges the ‘active’ part of the working memory. Once you go past N = 1, you can then no longer use a simple representation of the recent items in your mind, and instead must update a memory ‘buffer’ to compare new input against what you remember. This requires the maintenance and manipulation of the working memory. A number of studies have demonstrated the ability of the dual n-back test to actually improve fluid intelligence by improving the ability of the working memory (4).

Introducing the Dual N-Back

The ‘dual n-back’ or ‘dual task n-back’ makes things a little more difficult by introducing another new element. For instance, the dual n-back will often get you to match items not only based on their sound, but also on their colour. So you might see letters appearing, but also changing colour each time. Now you have to press stop if the items match either in sound or in colour.

What This Tells Us About Brain Training Generally

Both the N-Back test and the dual N-Back test have been shown to be effective at improving short term memory and thus fluid intelligence in studies. This should be very encouraging for anyone interested in improving their brain power through exercises. It also ‘salvages’ the reputation of products like Lumosity, which often ‘dress up’ their games to hide forms of proven neuropsychological training such as the N-Back test.

But still, even using the n-back test is unlikely to result in any immediate or highly noticeable benefits in your day-to-day life. Using working memory a lot might slightly improve your maths skills and save you time adding up your change as you go around the supermarket, but is that really going to affect your life in a big way?

Ask yourself how many people you know who have drastically improved their brains in a noticeable way through this kind of training. The answer is probably ‘none’. The skills that you really notice in conversation with someone are things like verbal dexterity, wit and confidence. If you’re hoping to turn into the guy from Limitless using the N-Back test, you’re liable to be disappointed.

The reality is that our brains adapt to the situations we put them in and that means they are far more shaped by the daily challenges we face. Playing a fun game for ten minutes in the morning isn’t really going to turn you into Rain Man.

The N-Back test is about the only brain training exercise shown to help improve memory, but if you really want to push your brain, try learning another language or take on more responsibilities at work.

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