On Wednesday afternoon, Kara Blacker, who is a post-doctoral fellow of psychological and brain sciences and neurology at John Hopkins University, spoke about her research on “The Flexibility of Working Memory” at Binghamton University’s psychology department colloquium. She began by explaining working memory and outlining the goals of her research project.
“Working memory is a mental work space where we store and process information,” Blacker said. “It predicts things like overall scholastic achievement, as well as individual skills like reading comprehension and math ability.”
In her research, Blacker focused on the visual-spatial domain of working memory, particularly how people store visual bits of information over short periods of time. Because visual working memory capacity is limited, she said we can only maintain about three or four pieces of information at one time.
“I am interested in whether we can stretch the limitations of working memory with experience and training, and see if we can push this capacity-limited system around,” Blacker said.
In one of her experiments, Blacker examined the effect of video games on visual perception and attention. She split a group of 34 college students in half, assigning one group to play the action video game “Call of Duty,” and the other group to a less combative control, “The Sims.” Data showed that the first-person perspective and fast-paced nature of action video games gave rise to visual-cognitive enhancements.
“After training, we see a significant improvement in visual working memory capacity for our action group above and beyond that of the control group,” Blacker said. “With something as simple as 30 hours of action video game experience, we can start to push this limitation.”
As a long-term goal, Blacker said she hopes to understand how the brain can change through testing and observing working memory in her subjects. By understanding the lasting scientific consequences of this research, she plans on applying the general premises of her discoveries to clinical work.
“Individuals with ADHD are very much characterized by deficits to working memory and executive function,” Blacker said. “They have a lot of room to benefit from working memory training.”
She measures training effectiveness by having healthy undergraduate participants fill out an ADHD symptoms questionnaire, which would provide her with a range of ADHD symptoms. Then, she would have these students participate in memory-related tasks, and compare their results before and after brain training. She found that individuals with more ADHD symptoms are the ones that benefit the most from training.
Sarah Laszlo, associate professor of psychology and director of BU’s brain and machine laboratory, helped coordinate the event and spoke about the importance of exposing BU students to professionals in varying fields. She explained that students can benefit from hearing ideas from experts within the University, as well as other institutions.
“I think it is always good to bring in people that know something that we don’t know because we are an institution of higher learning, and all of us faculty want for you students to learn as much as you possibly can while you are here,” Laszlo said.
She encouraged students to seek out events where they can hear about research in a more engaging setting — as opposed to reading from a textbook — because many recent scientific projects have broad implications for the current student population.
For example, there are many brain-training apps, such as Lumosity, that claim to improve memory, attention and problem-solving skills. Blacker spoke about this program — among others — and said that there is not enough reliable evidence to correlate these apps with higher levels of academic success.
According to her, there has been data disproving the claims of particular companies who claim their product can enhance academic performance. She has not studied the effectiveness of these specific apps, but she has stated that the goal of her and her colleagues is to inform the public based on science — even though media industries tend to overlook scientific findings.
“You are students and might be vulnerable to a company that is trying to sell you something to make you smarter,” Laszlo said. “I thought this talk was very reasonable and realistic. It is important to know the science behind something so you can learn about it and evaluate it yourself.”