A recent study explored whether working memory training can reduce anxiety associated with a particular stressor — exam time. While working memory training did not appear to reduce test anxiety among students, perceived success during the training tasks did. The findings were published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.
People who suffer from anxiety show deficits in working memory function. Working memory is a brain system that allows us to hold on to certain information and use it to guide our decisions and behavior. Scholars have found evidence to suggest that interventions that improve working memory also improve anxiety symptoms.
Little is known about how motivation might affect the success of working memory training on anxiety reduction. The authors of the new study elected to explore this topic among a sample of college students experiencing a particularly stressful season of the academic year — exam time.
“Cognitive mechanisms are known to underlie anxiety vulnerability. Processing efficiency, a crucial function of working memory to perform complex tasks, is found to be deficient in anxiety,” said assistant professor Berna A. Sari of Yeditepe University and professor Nazanin Derakshan of Birkbeck University in a joint response to PsyPost.
“We wanted to assess whether promoting the efficient use of working memory via 2-week cognitive training can lead to reductions in self-report anxiety. We specifically conducted this study during a high-stress period where the adverse effects of anxiety are more pronounced. Participants’ motivation and perceived success levels were also assessed to better understand training-related mechanisms and possible improvements.”
Two weeks before midterm exams, 96 students from a Turkish university were recruited for an experiment. The students completed measures of state and trait anxiety, attentional control, and test anxiety and were then assigned to one of two different groups. The two groups worked on different versions of a working memory task called the n-back task, 30 minutes a day for 14 days. Among the training group, the n-back task increased in difficulty at every trial along with each student’s performance. Among the control group, the working memory task remained at the lowest level of difficulty at each trial, regardless of the student’s performance.
As the participants completed each daily n-back session, they rated their level of motivation for the task, their level of anxiety during the task, and their perceived success on the task. A week after the intervention ended (at the end of midterm week) the subjects completed the same questionnaires as at baseline. An additional follow-up took place 7 weeks later, before final exam week.
The researchers found that the working memory training did appear to improve trait anxiety. Compared to students in the control group, those in the training group showed trait anxiety levels that declined over time from baseline to the second follow-up assessment. This suggests that reductions in anxiety were maintained over time among the training group.
“Working memory efficiency can reduce anxiety under stress. However, the exact mechanisms underlying this effect should be addressed in more detail,” Sari and Derakshan said.
There was no direct evidence that the training reduced test anxiety. However, among the training group, improvements in test anxiety following the intervention were linked to greater perceived success on the n-back task. This suggests that feelings of self-efficacy experienced during the training have an impact on the training’s potential to reduce test anxiety.
The training also did not appear to influence the students’ levels of motivation, confidence, or perceived success during exam week. The researchers say that the benefits of working memory training might show up as reduced “trait vulnerability to anxiety over time” rather than anxiety that is situation-dependent like exam-related stress.
Interestingly, the control group experienced a slight jump in trait anxiety just prior to the exam period, which indicates that the working memory training played a “shielding” role for the training group, possibly protecting them from stress.
“Working memory trainings show promising results in reducing trait anxiety. However, more research is needed before it becomes a common practice. The roles of other possible risk factors should also be considered,” Sari and Derakshan said.
The study, “Working Memory Training in Relation to Anxiety, Stress, and Motivation“, was authored by Berna A. Sari, Güliz Zeynep Tarman, Busra Ozdogan, Baris Metin, and Nazanin Derakshan.