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It’s long been known that having a job that is more intellectually stimulating can offer cognitive benefits, now psychologists have refined this theory

It’s well known that London black cab drivers’ brains develop in a particular way as a result of doing “the knowledge”, the test that requires them to know the location of almost every street and major landmark in the capital. One study, for instance, by neuroscientists at University College London, and published in Scientific American revealed that London taxi drivers “had more grey matter in their posterior hippocampi than people who were similar in age, education and intelligence, but who did not drive taxis…It seemed that the longer someone had been driving a taxi, the larger his hippocampus, as though the brain expanded to accommodate the cognitive demands of navigating London’s streets.”

More generally, research also suggests that having a job that is more intellectually stimulating can offer more cognitive benefits, some of which are obvious in later life. But now, a new study suggests that a key element of cognitive ability – our Working Memory Updating (WMU) – can also improve because of the job we have. WMU is essential for so many things, including reading, negotiating your way around a city and simply having a conversation or taking part in a meeting.

Flexing your WMU muscles

Researchers at Northwest Normal University in China used a group of 53 restaurant ticket collectors as participants in their study. In many popular restaurants in China a customer orders their food and drink at a counter and receives a ticket, which they then hand to the ticket collector. The ticket collector checks and memorises the customer’s order and passes it on to the kitchen staff. After the order is put together, the kitchen staff hands the ticket to the ticket collector, who then gives it to the customer.

During this process, the ticket collector continuously monitors incoming information in the form of customer-food items associations, with the requirement to constantly replace previous orders by new ones. Hence, this job would seem to require a strong WMU ability. To test this, the research team asked the 53 ticket collectors in their cohort to view a sequence of numbers and to constantly update their memory to hold in their mind just the previous three numbers that they’d seen. The researchers used a number of security guards as a control group and asked them to perform the same task.

Sure enough, the researchers discovered that even taking into account factors such as the participants’ general problem solving skills and their demographics, the restaurant ticket collectors performed better than the control group of security guards. But is this cause or effect? Did their job improve the ticket collectors’ WMU or were they better at it to start with? Were they able to do their job because they naturally had better WMU?

Good for your brain – matching customers with noodles

To check for this, the researchers recruited around 30 student and trained them for 30 minutes a day, over 20 consecutive days, using a realistic computer simulation of the role of a restaurant ticket collector. Here the participants were shown a series of 30 different cartoon characters representing a different type of customer, each of which was matched with one of six different kinds of beef noodles. The participants had to decide whether or not a pairing of customer type/cartoon character and food was identical to one they had seen a specific number of times earlier.

Meanwhile, an equally sized control group of students spent the same amount of time in a similar university lab room creating Tibetan sand paintings, another task that required them to focus. Here too those involved in the restaurant simulation show marked improvement in WMU.

This study does seem to suggest that having a job that requires us to be curious, to be constantly challenged and to have to regularly update our knowledge or the information that we take in can improve our WMU. Whatever the nature of our jobs it seems clear that adopting this approach and developing a growth mindset which inspires us to learn new things and update our current knowledge and learning whenever possible can, in turn, benefit other aspects of our lives.