Working memory: food for thought on Gordon Ramsey

Dr Tracy Alloway, guest blogger
Dr Tracy Alloway, guest blogger

Each year the British Science Association honours five outstanding young communicators with the opportunity to present a prestigious Award Lecture at the British Science Festival. The winner of this year’s Joseph Lister Award Lecture is Dr Tracy Alloway.  Tracy is Director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at the University of Stirling.  She is this week’s guest blogger.

Working memory is our brain’s post-it note. We use those little yellow slips of paper not only to jot down important information, but also to work with it, like when we use them to write down and cross out a to-do list. In the same way, working memory allows us to make mental scribbles of information we need to remember and think about.

Working memory impacts every area of our lives, from the classroom to the workplace. In my weekly blog, I look at how working memory impacts daily life (‘Does Pregnancy Brain affect Working Memory’) to pop culture (The Working Memory of Michael Jackson and Susan Boyle). You can read more here: www.tracyalloway.com There has been a lot of interest in my work from Scientific American to the BBC. Recently, some of my research on the importance of working memory was recently featured in the Sunday Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article6797737.ece.

Some of the things that fascinate me about working memory:

The genetics of working memory
What makes Gordon Ramsay, chef extraordinaire and owner of multiple restaurants around the globe, so successful, while his brother ended up in a jail for drug dealing and then homeless on the streets of London? Is Gordon Ramsay’s success in life related to his working memory? Do the genes we inherit play a role? Identical twins have identical genes, whereas fraternal twins share about half their genes. I have conducted one of the few scientific studies on identical and fraternal twins to understand the role of family in determining our working memory.

The spiral of working memory
It may come as a surprise to find out that working memory is linked to clenched fists and uncontrollable rage. In fact, boys with poor working memory are at greater risk of physical aggression and juvenile delinquency. I am working with juvenile delinquents and we will learn how their poor working memory led them down an increasingly dangerous path of crime. Evidence from my research demonstrates this spiral effect: young boys with poor working memory make criminal choices which damage their working memory (e.g., through alcohol, drugs, etc), which lead to worse decisions and more extreme criminal behavior.

Tyranny of technology?
With our ever-increasing reliance on word processing to help us write grammatically correct sentences, Blackberries to remind us of our appointments, speed-dial so we don’t have to remember the phone numbers, a universe of information available with a few keystrokes, are we impairing our working memory? What is the trade-off: what we do give up when we rely on new technology? Do Twitter-driven brevity and YouTube clips reduce our ability to engage in everyday life? In fact, technology can dramatically improve our working memory. There have been an influx of computer games and programs that promise to train your working memory muscle to Olympian proportions. But do they deliver? We have devised the world’s first working memory game that is clinically proven to improve grades for students as well as IQ. We look at the science behind different programs to find out what works and what doesn’t.

The twilight of working memory
Most of us worry about losing our memory as we grow old. I know I do. Will I forget significant events, meaningful relationships, even or how to perform simple daily activities? Understanding what we can do to train our working memory can have a tremendous impact in preventing memory loss and delay the signs of dementia. Want to find out your working memory?

Take a FREE test here: www.memoryandlearning.com/twins  (For ‘Twin Study Number’, use your initials).

You can catch Tracy giving her Award Lecture The new IQ – working memory at the Festival on Sunday 6th September at 12.15

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