Exercise Your Working Memory and Build Mental Muscle!

Mastering memory through games and everyday tasks

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

Sharpening our working memory can help us to better accomplish tasks that involve juggling multiple pieces of information, such as taking phone calls while preparing lunch. Dr. Restak provides some simple memory games you can try, as well as examples from everyday life.

young man chopping vegetables while talking on the phone
Training your brain through complex everyday tasks and memory games works to increase your capacity for good working memory. Photo by 4 PM production

Improve Your Working Memory

You can take active steps to improve your working memory—that part of your memory that helps you to accomplish daily tasks such as running errands and remembering where you parked. You can start with a memory game called the backward digit span. 

In a traditional digit span, you would take a sequence of numbers such as “1, 2, 3, 4” and try to remember them in that order. For the backward digit span, you would remember them backwards so “1, 2, 3, 4” would be “4, 3, 2, 1.”

You can do this for four, five, six, and maybe even seven-digit numbers. After doing numbers, try memorizing words spelled backwards. 

Backward Digit Span

“World” is “D-L-R-O-W.” Move on to “hospital,” “democracy”—which is a tough one since you have to keep those letters in your mind. Once you get good at that, move on to a word like “irresponsibility.” Establish the word length that you’re comfortable with and can manage.

Next, you can move from single words to sequenced information. Take any sequence of information—maybe a sports team or the hit recordings by a singer—and shift the information around according to dates, alphabetical listing, or other criteria. 

Try it with the U.S. presidents starting with Donald Trump and going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You have Trump, Barack Obama, George Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Next, convert that list into a test of working memory: Name only the Democratic presidents starting with Obama and going backward. Time yourself without writing anything down. 

Here’s the list: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Harry Truman, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Next, name all the Republican presidents. We have Donald Trump, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Rearranging Memory

In order to do those two exercises, you had to recall all of the presidents in order but suppress certain names depending on political party. There was no need to rearrange anything. 

Here is a more challenging working memory exercise: Name the presidents in alphabetical order by last name between Donald Trump and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

It takes quite a bit longer to think about it. George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Donald Trump. 

Notice how much more difficult the last exercise was compared to the first two? In this one, you had to do more than just suppress the Democrat or Republican; you had to mentally re-arrange things.

Working Memory in Daily Life

Everyday examples of working memory include arranging a dinner party composed of people who may or may not be compatible. Imagine 12 people composed of neighbors, coworkers from your job, and coworkers from your husband’s job—a mixed group. You must mentally review people, their personalities, and your impression of them in order to plan a dinner party that would be harmonious. 

Another example would be reviewing a new recipe before you begin making it. Additionally, you can recall and ponder all of your past discussions about office routines with an employee.

Word processing provides a metaphor for working memory. When working on two documents, you can shift back and forth from one to the other. 

If you were to forget one document, you would be suffering the equivalent of a loss in working memory. An example of the interference effect—a failure in working memory—would be if you are interrupted during a talk with an employee and forget your point.

Remembering and manipulating cards in play during a bridge game is an excellent way of testing and exercising your working memory. You can also be exercising your general memory by remembering how that particular hand did the last time you were playing.

Overall, we can take many steps to improve our working memory, both by engaging in memory games and by focusing on specific mental tasks in our everyday lives. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses 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.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.