What is working memory? Can interventions designed to reframe how a person views a task help increase working memory and its critical link to cognitive skills such as reading comprehension, reasoning, and intelligence?
During his senior year in the psychology program, Honors student Matthew Welhaf examined the role of working memory in his research project "You're Not as Dumb as You Think You Are: The Impact of a Metacognitive Reframing Intervention," which received an honorable mention at the 2014 Undergraduate Student Symposium.
"Interventions designed to increase working memory are of great interest given the possible benefits in reading comprehension and academic performance," said Welhaf, a 2014 graduate of the college's B.S. in Psychology program.
Welhaf conducted the research as part of an independent study course directed by Jonathan Banks, Ph.D., assistant professor at the college.
In the study, participants were asked to complete an unsolvable anagram task. Afterward, one group was asked to read a "reframing script" which said that a poor performance should be expected on the first completion of this difficult task––thus, "they're not as dumb as they think." A control group did not receive this feedback.
After reading the script, participants were asked to perform a second exercise––a working memory test.
The reframing intervention––in this case, the script––was designed to reduce the number of "task-unrelated thoughts," off-task thoughts that can interfere with working memory and impair performance in a variety of cognitive functions.
The results did not show a difference in the participants' overall scores on the working memory test or a reduction in the number of task-unrelated thoughts. However, the "reframing condition" did alter the impact of task-unrelated thoughts. Participants who read the script had faster speeds and fewer speed-related errors on the working memory test than those in the control group.
"Interventions designed to reframe metacognitive interpretations of the difficulty of a subjective task have been shown to improve cognitive performance," Welhaf said. "We were looking at whether an intervention can change the effect or reduce the interference of off-task thoughts.
"These findings demonstrate that while metacognitive interventions may not reduce task-unrelated thoughts, they may alter their impact on working-memory task performance."
"The results of Matt's study help us to understand the relationship between task-unrelated thoughts and working memory," Banks said. "Typically, the relationship between task-unrelated thoughts and cognitive task performance is negative. When thoughts that are unrelated to the task occur, they impair task performance.
"However, the current results suggest that it may be possible to alter this relationship. If we can reduce the negative impact of task-unrelated thoughts on task performance then we may be able to increase performance in a variety of cognitive tasks."
For Welhaf, the project helped him "learn the ropes" of academic research and delve deeper into an area of interest. He will begin classes in fall 2014 in the college's M.S. in Experimental Psychology program.
"Independent study gives you an opportunity to explore your interests and go to the next step–– reviewing literature, data compilation, doing research, and analyzing results. You get the chance to add to a body of scientific literature––to put your stamp on the scientific field. It allows you to do the bulk of the work and grow as an academic scholar."