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Mastering emotions by sharpening memory? It just might work

March 19, 2013|By Melissa Healy

Emotional regulation -- the ability to take negative feelings and recognize, accept and channel them properly -- is an Achilles' heel for many people, but especially for those with anxiety-related disorders, eating disorders and some personality disorders. It can take years of psychotherapy to strengthen one's powers of emotional regulation. Or, says a new study, it might take a few weeks of brain training aimed at strengthening one's short-term memory.

It turns out that the brain circuitry involved in emotional regulation  largely overlaps with the network of brain structures that govern short-term (or working) memory -- the ability to hold in mind three or more "items" for a minute or two. Working memory is what helps us remember a shopping list or a telephone number (I know -- who does THAT anymore?) or to carry out a complex mathematical operation in our head.

Whether we are trying to contain our anger at an imbecile boss yammering away senselessly in a meeting or to remember the sequence of street names and right-left turns a stranger just gave us, the brain's frontoparietal neural circuitry is hard at work. When it's humming, signals pingpong between different parts of the frontal lobes just behind our forehead and the parietal cortex just rear of the crown of the head.

So it stands to reason, thought a group of researchers from Britain and Canada, that exercises that strengthen one of those skills -- working memory -- might also improve a person's ability to emotionally self-regulate. The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Their research comes as brain training is becoming a big and growing business. As neuroscientists and game designers collaborate on new programs to challenge the brain and new marketing to sell those programs, Americans are expected to increase their spending on brain-training games from $175 million in 2012 to $600 million in 2020, according to, a website that tracks the brain-training market.

While a few of those, including some offered by Cogmed and Lumosity, have been tested in clinical trials, many offer benefits that are dubious. But a key question remains, even for those that have a proven track record of improving performance on cognitive tests: Do those improvements translate into smarter, more adaptive behavior in everyday life?

To discover whether such brain training could improve performance across the two "cognitive domains" of working memory and emotional regulation, the researchers in this study adapted a working-memory brain-training program so that it contained a bit of emotional content.

In a working-memory test called "n-back," the student is shown a sequence of images (or letters, numbers or colors). As she moves forward in the sequence, she is challenged to remember an image (or letter, number or color) that she saw, say, two or three steps back. With practice, one typically gets better at remembering items farther and farther back in the sequence.

The emotional n-back game the researchers devised showed faces contorted in a wide range of negative emotional expressions and challenged 17 subjects to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day for 20 days playing the game. Fifteen other subjects got a form of "placebo" brain training -- a matching game that made minimal demands on working memory and so would be unlikely to strengthen their skills on those tasks.

At the outset of the experiment, and then, when the subjects were called back 20 days later, the experimenters imaged subjects' brains while they engaged in a series of emotional-regulation tasks. Upon their return, all the subjects were scanned again while engaged in the same tasks.

Sure enough, the subjects who had spent time improving their  working-memory skills also became better at emotional regulation. The placebo group did not show any improvement over their performance 20 days earlier. And among the brain-training subjects, improvements in emotional regulation generally tracked with how much their performance on working-memory tasks had improved with training.

On the scans, researchers saw that activity in the frontoparietal circuitry of the trained subjects was far higher during the emotional-regulation tasks than that of subjects who got the placebo training.

The results underscore that, if brain-training programs are to have positive effects away from the computer keyboard -- say, in a classroom -- neuroscientists will first have to identify life skills that share neural circuitry with narrower cognitive skills that can be strengthened with repeated exercise. This may be a first step toward that.

"Working-memory training is emerging as a key ingredient of broader efforts to improve emotional self-regulation and academic performance among at-risk groups," said Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive of "What we need now is better ways to screen for students who may benefit from such an intervention, and better ways to deliver and support it."

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