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The childhood pastimes that flex working memory

Posted on 07-09-16 in Children, Cognition, Mental Health

The childhood pastimes that flex working memory

“Because it’s there.” – English mountaineer George Mallory, one of the first nonnatives to climb Mount Everest

This simple quote encapsulates most of our childhoods. We turned boxes into forts, climbed trees and dug holes all because “it was there.” A new study now spotlights some of those childhood activities dramatically fine-tune working memory.

Working memory

Virginia Tech Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning Peter Doolittle, Ph.D., has given several TED Talks on working memory. He says it’s the part of recall where we:

  • Store immediate experience and applicable knowledge
  • Have quick access, like a serving hatch or a laundry chute, into long-term memory for processing in relation to current goals such as getting into a hotel room, performing on standardized tests, locating what you came into a room for or route planning

Many studies link working memory impairment with drug and alcohol dependency and identify working memory strength as a buffer against slipping into problematic drug use.

Unbeknownst to you

Childhood pastimes like climbing, crawling, navigating obstacles, balancing on a narrow beam, and carrying awkward loads – like buckets filled for sandcastles and bundles of sticks for forts – sharpen short-term perceptual memory by 50 percent.


That’s according to psychologists and husband-and-wife research duo Tracy and Ross Alloway. The two are experts in working memory and say activities that are unpredictable and require quick adaptations hone the same short-term memory used to remember shopping lists, item locations and body awareness.

It’s understood that humans utilize more than just the five senses. Scientists say there are several additional senses, and the underlying sense these activities all play on is called proprioception.

Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense itself; the location and orientation of limbs and digits for example. Some developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome also interfere with proprioception. When one is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, this is one of the senses that can be dulled.

The study

In their study, the Alloways tested more than 70 men and women from 18–59 years old. The trial began with quizzing participants on personal working memory, then challenging them with two hours of proprioception exercises combined with navigation skills and locomotion. The participants were then re-evaluated on working memory. This is where study authors saw the boost in working memory – after the proprioceptive workouts.


Another portion of the study involved half the group doing yoga – a static exercise of proprioception – and the others in a college class learning new information in a lecture setting. Interestingly, neither of the groups demonstrated working memory increases thereafter.

The Alloways concluded doing locomotive activities that make people think strengthens working memory.

What if you not a climber?

Don’t despair if climbing trees or crawling through logs wasn’t a go-to childhood favorite. There is an array of supplemental activities to incorporate into leisure or exercise time now to tone working memory:

  • Running barefoot has had tremendous results and intriguing research on efficacy for working memory
  • Indoor rock climbing
  • Balancing on one leg with your eyes open/closed
  • Balancing on a wobble/balance/bongo board or duradisk
  • Walking, hiking or bicycling on uneven, rocky or soft surfaces
  • Play a game of squash, tennis or football
  • Resistance workouts using bands instead of weight machines

Doolittle says improving working memory is not a convoluted process; rather it is organic and in sync with having a zest for life.

“What we process, we learn. Live life.”

Sovereign Health works with cutting-edge brain wellness tools and experiential therapies to rehabilitate individuals who have had mental and eating disorders, substance use problems and dual diagnoses of co-occurring issues. We keep you up-to-date on the latest in treatment, research and clinical news and provide practical tips to maintain wellness. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn more.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at