Prevent Cognitive Load Excess with These Working Memory Exercises

Fluency tests you can perform with coins, cards, or a recorder

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Have you ever consumed so much information that it hurt your brain? According to Dr. Restak, there is such a thing as information overload. Thankfully, you can whip your brain back into shape with these working memory exercises.

Man shuffling deck of cards
A working memory exercise called the N-Back test involves a pack of cards and recalling a certain number of cards seen prior to a specifically selected card. Photo by Cilinskas / Shutterstock

Cognitive Load

Information in our working memory is known as cognitive load. If the load is exceeded, information isn’t encoded and cannot be transferred to long-term memory, and concepts aren’t formed. 

Technology—especially consuming information on the internet—increases cognitive load and interferes with the formation of long-term memory. Similarly, multitasking places demands on our memory. Our working memory is exceeded, we’re perpetually distracted, and we show many of the subtle signs of ADHD.

Luckily, you can take steps to improve your working memory. Dr. Restak recommends that you limit multitasking, which causes a frontal lobe bottleneck, overworks the frontal lobes, and interferes with metacognition (awareness of your cognitive performance). 

Fluency Tests

One memory exercise you can try is the Semantic Fluency Test. In one minute, name as many animals as you can. 

No repetition is allowed, so you have to use working memory to mentally eliminate any animals you have already named. See how many you get in one minute. A desirable score is 17–20.

Another exercise you can try is the Lexical Fluency Test. In one minute, name as many words as you can beginning with the letter S. Then repeat it with the letter F. 

You can’t use proper names—just regular words. Aim for 20–25 words, which would be a good initial score.

You can also test working memory with coins. Put out some coins—dimes, nickels, and quarters. You would more than likely combine the coins by type to find the total value.

To test your working memory, you can total the coins in terms of their actual value. For example, if you have two quarters, you have 50 cents. Three quarters is equal to 75 cents, and two dimes equals 20 cents. 

Instead of adding the coins as you go along, keep the values for each coin type in separate mental files, and add them together at the end. You can check your accuracy by grouping the coins together by type as you pick them up and then adding them up the traditional way to see if the value matches your first number.

Most people start with two coin types—usually dimes and nickels—and then work their way up to four. The coin counting test is hard. 

There is no way to do any of these exercises without focused attention. The goal in each of the fluency tests is to activate the frontal executive circuits, which are responsible for organizing information.

N-Back Test

Another working memory exercise is called the N-Back test, which involves a pack of cards. Take the deck of cards after they’ve been shuffled and pick a trigger card—let’s say it’s a queen. 

Start turning the cards over until you come to the card you were looking for—the queen. Then recall what you saw two cards before the queen. In this case, it’s the joker. After you get good at that, you can go back three cards. 

For a final working memory test, you can read numbers into a voice recorder, and then put it away. Come back and listen to the recording for a randomly selected number. 

When you hear the number, stop the recording and write down the number you heard two numbers previously. Then reverse your recording and check your accuracy.

All of these exercises not only help to improve your working memory, but they can reduce the strain caused by exceeding your cognitive load. You’ll notice that all of these exercises are simple and don’t require complicated technology. Thus, they provide an antidote to our fast-paced modern lifestyle in which we are often consuming information faster than we can digest it and put to use.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.