Yoga Practice Improves Short-Term Memory
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information,” – Mark Prigg
Humans have both an amazing capacity to remember and a tremendously limited capacity depending upon which phase of the memory process. Our long-term store of information is virtually unlimited. On the other hand, short-term memory is extremely limited. This is called our working memory and it can contain only about 5 to 9 pieces of information at a time. This fact of a limited working memory store shapes a great deal about how we think, summarize, and categorize our world.
Memory ability is so important to everyday human functioning that it is important to study ways to maintain or improve it. Short-term, working, memory can be improved. Mindfulness has been shown to improve working memory capacity. Yoga practice has also been shown to have improve memory and reduce the decline in memory ability that occurs with aging. But, little is known about the components of working memory that are effected by mindfulness and yoga training. It is thus important to study the detailed effects of yoga practice on the components of short-term memory ability in humans.
In today’s Research News article “A yoga program for cognitive enhancement.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5544241/, Brunner and colleagues recruited college students and provided them with 6 60-minute yoga sessions either twice per week for 3 weeks or once per week for 6 weeks. The practice included meditation, poses, and relaxation. They were measured before and after yoga training for mindfulness, and working memory. They were tested for both forward and backward digit span tests, requiring them to remember sequences of numbers and repeat them back either in the order presented or in the reverse order. They were also tested with a letter and number sequencing tests, requiring them to remember unordered sequences of numbers or letters and repeat them back in numeric or alphabetical order.
They found that after yoga practice the students had significant increases in mindfulness and significant improvements in all memory tests including forward and backward digit span and letter and number sequencing. The forward digit span is a straightforward measure of short-term memory. On the other hand, the backward digit span and letter and number sequencing tasks require manipulation of the information contained in short-term memory; reordering it prior to recitation, and thereby test ability to work with material stored in short-term memory. Hence yoga practice appeared to improve mindfulness, short-term memory ability, and the ability to process material in short-term memory.
A potential alternative explanation for the results is a simple practice effect. The participants performed the tests twice, once before and once after yoga training. It is possible that they got better simply because the after test was the second time they’d performed the task. But, previous research has demonstrated that there is very little improvement in these tasks with practice, making this explanation less likely. But, there are other alternative explanations including placebo effects, experimenter bias effects, and attentional effects that could still explain the results rather than an effect of yoga training. A control group is needed in future research to conclusively demonstrate the effectiveness of yoga practice to enhance memory.
So, yoga practice may improve short-term memory.
“The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.” – Neha Gotha
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Brunner, D., Abramovitch, A., & Etherton, J. (2017). A yoga program for cognitive enhancement. PLoS ONE, 12(8), e0182366. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182366
Recent studies suggest that yoga practice may improve cognitive functioning. Although preliminary data indicate that yoga improves working memory (WM), high-resolution information about the type of WM subconstructs, namely maintenance and manipulation, is not available. Furthermore, the association between cognitive enhancement and improved mindfulness as a result of yoga practice requires empirical examination. The aim of the present study is to assess the impact of a brief yoga program on WM maintenance, WM manipulation and attentive mindfulness.
Measures of WM (Digit Span Forward, Backward, and Sequencing, and Letter-Number Sequencing) were administered prior to and following 6 sessions of yoga (N = 43). Additionally, the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale was administered to examine the potential impact of yoga practice on mindfulness, as well as the relationships among changes in WM and mindfulness.
Analyses revealed significant improvement from pre- to post- training assessment on both maintenance WM (Digit Span Forward) and manipulation WM (Digit Span Backward and Letter-Number Sequencing). No change was found on Digit Span Sequencing. Improvement was also found on mindfulness scores. However, no correlation was observed between mindfulness and WM measures.
A 6-session yoga program was associated with improvement on manipulation and maintenance WM measures as well as enhanced mindfulness scores. Additional research is needed to understand the extent of yoga-related cognitive enhancement and mechanisms by which yoga may enhance cognition, ideally by utilizing randomized controlled trials and more comprehensive neuropsychological batteries.