Working Memory and Mario

Have you ever purposefully walked into your kitchen, gone right to the refrigerator, and forgotten what it is you intended to get? You’re staring at the refrigerator and thinking to yourself, “I know I came here for a reason, I just can’t remember what that reason was.” If you’re like me and most other adults, this may be a fairly common occurrence. This is an example of Working Memory: having an idea, but as you go to act on it, it slips  your mind. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can open the fridge and your memory will suddenly reappear. At other times, you’ll have to walk away and do something else before the “light bulb” will go off.

Without going into too much detail (you might forget some of it), the old research used to say that if you’re over the age of 35 you’re on the downhill slope of your Working Memory capacities. However, there is a lot of great new scientific evidence that you can improve your Working Memory, or at least hold on to what you’ve got through cognitive  training with video games and video-game like tools.

Games such as Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii are not only a lot of fun to play with your kids, but also exercise your Working Memory skills. For example:

  • In Super Smash Bros., the player must user his Working Memory when recalling button combinations for special attacks and other movements.
  • In Mario Kart, memorizing the layout of a track as you race is essential to finding all of the power-ups and bonuses.
  • In New Super Mario Bros. the player needs to constantly recall the locations of coins   and other items in order to beat each level.

If you really want to improve your Working Memory skills by playing these video games though, you’ll need to keep the following guidelines in mind (a Working Memory task in-and-of itself!):

  • Repetition. You’ll need to play the games repeatedly to see any improvement. Just as you can’t go to the gym and do one sit-up and expect to have a 6-pack of abs, you need many repetitions to see some growth.
  • Duration. Not to belabor a point, you can’t go to the gym for just one day, you need to go regularly, for months to really see significant gains. The same thing holds true for practicing your memory skills.
  • Challenge yourself.  If you only play easy games, or games you’ve already beaten, you won’t be using your “mental muscles” enough to improve them. By playing increasingly challenging games, you’ll constantly be achieving improvement in Working Memory.
  • Compete.  Sometimes the best way to get yourself better at something is to want to beat someone else at it.  You have a built in competitor if you are playing your child.  Interestingly, there are some Working Memory games that you might actually have a chance to beat them,  because they are not all based upon game-skills or reaction time.
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