Theory & Hypothesis

According to von Bastian, C.C.,
Langer, N., Jancke, L., & Oberauer, K. (2013) working memory is at the
foundation of all complex cognitive efforts, including reasoning. Based on
this, von Bastian et al., (2013) decided to test whether extensive training of
the working memory in old versus young adults would improve their working
memory and transfer to their reasoning abilities in tasks other than those in
which they are trained for the study.

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Some studies available on this
topic found that reasoning and working memory abilities regress with age (Craik
& Bialystok, 2006; Kramer & Willis, 2002; Park et al. as cited by Von
Bastian et al., 2013). However, other studies have shown that small improvements
in working memory tasks other than those practiced can be observed in older
adults (Buschkuehl et al. 2008; Smith et al., 2009; Zinke et al., 2012; as
cited by von Bastian et al.,2013). Studies concerned with transfer of working
memory ability to reasoning have generally not been clear, but some have provided
support for significant improvements in young (Jaeggi et al.,2008; Jaeggi et
al., 2010; Klingberg et al.,2002; von Bastian & Oberaur, 2012 as cited by
von Bastian et al., 2013) and old adults (Basak et al., 2008; Borella et al.
2010; Karbach & Kray, 200; Van Muijden et al., 2010 as cited by von Bastian
et al. 2013).

Previous studies done in this area
have varied in many aspects such as training conditions; not all studies
included active control groups, and many did not adjust task difficulties based
on the participant’s individual performance. Due
to these differences and methodological issues, it has been difficult to draw
conclusions about what contributes to transfer of working memory to reasoning.

Previously, von Bastian &
Oberauer, (2012) used a model to guide their study in which working memory can
be classified into three functional categories: storage and processing which
represent the simultaneous maintenance and manipulation of information,
relational integration which includes the coordination of information into new
structures, and supervision which includes the selective activation and
inhibition of relevant and irrelevant information. In this study, they found
transfer to many non-practiced tasks after extensive and adaptive training in
one specific functional category such as training of storage and processing,
and training in supervision (von Bastian & Oberauer, 2012, as cited in von
Bastian et al., 2013).  There were also
improvements seen in reasoning for both groups, but no broad transfer was observed
in the group trained on relational integration. von Bastian et al., (2013)
hypothesized that there should be broader transfer effects when training
provided targets more than one area of working memory. In other words, they
believed that they’d find additional or greater
transfer effects when storage and processing, relational integration, and
supervision are all simultaneously trained.

Methods

Participants were given extensive
cognitive training which was spread across twenty sessions which were conducted
over a period of four weeks. They were divided into young and old categories
and then assigned to the Working Memory Training group or the Active Control Training
group. They used computer based tests before and after training along with EEG
recordings during a subset of tasks. Half of all participants had fMRI and MRI,
as well as diffusion-tensor imaging (DTI) done.

For training, each group was
assigned 3 randomized tasks for about 10 minutes per session. They all started
at a base level of difficulty which was the same across the study. Difficulty
increased with performance on quizzes administered and training affects were
measured by performance gains during training, and pre & post-tests.

The working memory training included
one task for each category of memory. This included a numerical complex span
task as a measure for storage and processing, Tower of Fame for measure of relational
integration, and Figural Task Switching for measure of supervision. The active
control training group participated in three training tasks which required only
a little working memory capacity and where speed was of little importance.

The pre & post-assessments were
made up of ten tasks designed to measure the three tasks trained as well as near
transfer to three structurally similar tasks, intermediate transfer to two
structurally dissimilar tasks, and a control test. Intermediate transfer of
working memory was measured with a word-position binding task and a n-back
task. Far transfer of reasoning was measured using Raven’s
Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPM) where participants were made to select one
of eight figures that complete the pattern. A similar, but more difficult test
called Bochumer Matrizentest was also given to the young group. This included
six alternative figures to complete the patterns presented. Control quizzes
were based on general knowledge; they included 16 open text questions and no
transfer was expected to be found.

Results

All groups showed large training
effects for each task trained except for figural task switching. Training
effects occurred in young participants for the numerical complex span, indicating
that younger participants did better than older participants. There were also
larger improvements seen in younger participants than older ones for the Tower
of Fame task. For task switching, older participants performed better than
younger. von Bastian et al., (2013), found that older participants in the
active control group performed better than younger ones and showed larger improvements
during training. Near transfer was only significant for both age groups in the
verbal complex span task, which was structurally similar to the numerical
complex span task used for training. There were no significant interactions
indicating intermediate transfer. There was no evidence of improvement in
reasoning due to WM training. von Bastian et al., (2013) found that transfer
actually decreases when multiple functional categories are trained at once not
the hypothesized broader transfer. For the test battery, it was found that
younger people rather than older generally performed better.

Discussion of Cognitive Psychology

According to Baddeley’s Theory of Working Memory, we have a mechanism in place which
we use to hold information for a short period of time without storing it into
long-term memory. This is what he called the working memory. Baddeley suggested
that we have a visuospatial sketchpad and a phonological loop to aid us, they
maintain the information we need to complete whatever task we’re working on. The visuospatial sketchpad serves to provide
a mental image which we can use to work out problems, such as those related to
math. The phonological loop is a rehearsal process we may partake in, an
example of this would be repeating the numbers of an address before finding
something to write it down on. The central executive of working memory is
responsible for controlling how the systems (visuospatial sketchpad,
phonological loop) are used, how information is stored, and how information is
retrieved from them as well. This theory also claims that the central executive
has its own memory reserves which serves to make decisions about how to use the
systems at a given time (Anderson, p.129). von Bastian et al., (2013) aimed at building
on these skills in order to investigate whether or not the abilities obtained could
be applied to other areas of similar and different structures.

The poor performance in transfer of
skills and abilities seen in the study conducted by von Bastian et al., (2013) compared
to the done just one year earlier by von Bastian & Oberauer, (2012), could
be due to standard interference. In von Bastian & Oberauer, (2012), the
participants focused on only one category of the three possible categories. von
Bastian & Oberauer, (2012), found transfer to many non-practiced tasks
which measured the same concept. According to Anderson, redundant or similar
information is retrieved more easily than information which is not similar. In
contrast, information which is dissimilar is prone to more interference
(Anderson, pg. 160-61) This could be why the participants in the study conducted
by von Bastian et al., (2013) who were responsible for improvements in three
unrelated categories had less intermediate transfer (for tasks which were not
similar) than near transfer (tasks which were similar in structure).

According to the Wechsler Adult
Intelligence Scale-Revised (WAIS-R), intelligence is made up of two components:
verbal, which generally improves or at least remains intact throughout the
lifespan and reasoning/problem solving which decreases significantly as people
get older (Anderson, pg.350). Although there was no significant transfer to
reasoning found in the study conducted by von Bastian et al., (2013), this
could account for the better performance in individual cognitive tasks seen in
younger participants versus the older participants (von Bastian et al., 2013). Additionally,
another factor which may have further enhanced the differences seen and is
practical in nature, is that there was a similar amount of time allotted for
the young and old groups. According to Anderson, older people do better on
slower tests. Additionally, the tests are presented like school tests; many of
the younger population participants have more recent experience in this format
of test taking than the older population participants who may have been out of
school for decades (Anderson, pg. 350). Furthermore, brain cells, including
those related to memory, die as people age. Cells in the hippocampus, which is important
to memory, die at a rate of about 5% per decade (Anderson, pg. 351). Lastly,
with regard to information-processing, Salthouse, (1992) found that with age people
tend to lose their ability to hold information in working-memory and the loss
of abilities tends to steepen as people get older (Salthouse, 1992 as cited in
Anderson pg.352-353); these are all factors which may have contributed.

Discussion of a real world application of knowledge gained from the
study

One way to use the information this
study provided is to literally apply the findings to myself or another
individual in order to enhance working memory or reasoning abilities. As we
learned, focusing on more than one aspect of working memory is not very
efficient, but focusing in on just one can prove beneficial. For example, if an
accountant needed to or wanted to work on their storage and processing
abilities, the numerical complex span task would help them. For the numerical
complex span task, a memory item such as a two-digit number is presented for .5
s, a second distractor (single-digit number) is shown immediately and
participants are required to say whether the number was odd or even, this
lasted 3 s. Once the participant responded to the question, the screen is shown
blank. This process is done repeatedly and then they are required to recall the
sequences. As shown in the study, not only does this task get better with
training, but there was also a small transfer of abilities seen. Therefore,
intensive training in this area could help in specific and non-specific ways.

Although less training effects were
seen in the figural task switching category, someone who works in a fast paced
environment with varying demands might benefit from training with a figural
task switching exercise. Some examples of fields where elements of figural task
switching key are furniture assembly people, those who work in shipping and
receiving, and those who work in restaurants or hotels. For the figural task
switching exercise, participants had to categorize simple geometric shapes as
accurately and quickly as possible in rounds of two. The categorization rule
and the stimuli (the shape) were presented until the participant ran out of
time or until the individual responded. To make the task more difficult, the
time to respond was set at the 99th percentile of the participant’s reaction time and was incrementally adjusted. This study teaches
the reader that the correct manner of training working memory (or that which
will yield best results) is to focus on one aspect at a time rather than trying
to master multiple unrelated skills simultaneously.