Climb a Tree for Working Memory

by Ross Alloway


I like exercise, but I don’t like gyms. I’ve even run in a blizzard to avoid a slog on the treadmill. I suppose the reason I feel this way is that gyms seem artificial to me — the air conditioning, the thumping music, the way they encourage movements that bear little relation to the real world. Consider, for example, the number of times you have done triceps extensions or isolated bicep curls outside of a gym. Probably never.

I also think that a traditional gym environment may encourage cognitive passivity. Rather than being mentally engaged when we go to a gym, we often turn our Ipods on in order to switch our brains off, and drown ourselves in a haze of auto-tuned vocals and auto-tuned movements. You don’t have to think to do a leg extension or a bench press, and this is often intentionally designed this way, as gym users seem not to want to think about what they are doing.

Available evidence supports this notion, showing that whatever the physical benefits of conventional anaerobic exercise, there is little evidence of cognitive benefits, particularly for working memory.

Working Memory, the active processing of information, is linked to performance in a wide variety of contexts, from grades to sports. Tracy’s research has shown that the better your working memory, the better your results in contexts where you have to process information.

If you were a best man at a wedding, for example, and you discovered that you had left your notes for your speech on the kitchen table at home, it would be your working memory that would allow you to manage the stress of public speaking, and, at the same time, piece together information you know about the newlyweds in a witty and heartwarming manner.

The great thing about working memory is not just that it helps us in so many different ways, but Tracy’s research has suggests that it can be strengthened much like a muscle. And, in contrast to conventional anaerobic exercise, certain physical exercises can improve working memory.

Studies indicate, for example, that running improves working memory, and brain scans have shown the home of working memory in the brain, the Prefrontal Cortex, fires, when running. This is possibly because to run without falling flat on your face, you have to use your working memory to process visual information in your immediate environment and how your body is moving through it. This awareness of your body position and orientation is known as proprioception (more on that later).

When Tracy and I found out about the cognitive benefits of running, years ago, we quickly picked it up, doing it almost exclusively. But after month or so, I became bored with pounding the pavement. I felt there was something missing in my exercise, as if my body was capable of doing a lot more than putting one foot in front of the other.

Then we found this video on YouTube:

This was the antithesis of most of the stuff I had seen in the gym, and it made me realize how far removed modern exercise culture was from the world humans used to inhabit. In the natural world, a leg extension, a bicep curl, is about as useful as a cell phone without bars.

When watching it, I saw jumps, climbs, and sprints, but also an adaptive engagement with a complex environment. I saw proprioceptive skills, processing of visual information, planning, and rapid decision making. Knowing that such movements required working memory, we wondered if they might also improve working memory.

But there was a big problem: to test this hypothesis we had to have participants, and very few people are capable of performing the seemingly dangerous Tarzanesque movements on the video. Fortunately, as I found out, Movnat, the company that produced the video, also teaches a much more sedate version of the movements that doesn’t put participants’ lives in mortal danger.

In order to find out if the proprioceptively demanding movements of Movnat improved working memory, we recruited a group of volunteers aged 18-59 and we tested their working memory. This way, we had a baseline of their working memory so we could see any differences after they did the exercises.

Next, we handed over the reigns to a Movnat instructor, who taught our participants a wide range of different natural movements, from the proper way to crawl on the ground, how to climb a tree, walking along the top of a fence, and carrying awkwardly weighted objects.

To get an idea of some of the exercises participants did, have a look at this video:

After the training participants were tested again. While we wondered if we would see any improvement in working memory when we started the experiment, we astonished to find a dramatic increase of 50% from the first time they were tested. That’s right, certain movements can greatly improve how well you can think.

Now, of course, a skeptical reader would suggest that there were other reasons for the improvement. For example, you could speculate they improved because they were learning something new. So, as a control, we also tested a college class before and after learning new information in a lecture setting, and we found their working memory didn’t improve at all.

Why do natural movements improve working memory? We initially theorized that it was due to its proprioceptively demanding nature of the exercises. Proprioception, again, can be defined as awareness of our body position and orientation. Proprioception demands that we think, that we are conscious of what we are doing, and that thinking, and engaging with our environment, is associated with working memory.

So, then, does anything requiring proprioception help our working memory? The answer would seem to be no, at least in our experiment, as we also tested the working memory a group of volunteers doing yoga, and found no improvement. Yoga is all about proprioception, as you have to pay attention to your body position or topple over on to your yoga mat.

We were stumped. If proprioception in natural movement improves working memory, why wouldn’t it for people doing yoga? At this point, we had to think more deeply about the nature of the Movnat exercises, and we realized that almost all of them required proprioception AND something else as well. For example Movnat requires you to balance when you are walking along a fence, but it also requires you to move. You don’t just crawl with these exercises, you are crawling under something, requiring route planning as well as proprioception.

We call such exercises proprioceptively dynamic, meaning you are always updating, adapting, and changing how you move when you are doing the movements. You can think of it as “proprioception plus one.” Cognitively speaking, proprioceptively dynamic movements are like having a conversation with more than one person at the same time. The exercises recruit our brains as much as our bodies, and as the research shows, can really exercise and improve your working memory.

Proprioceptively-dynamic training may place a greater demand on working memory than the yoga control condition, because as environment and terrain changes, the individual recruits working memory to update information to adapt appropriately. Though the yoga control group engaged in proprioceptive activities that required awareness of body position, it was relatively static as they performed the yoga postures in a small space, which did not allow for locomotion or navigation.

Well, so what? How can this research help me and my workout? Stay tuned for the next installment when we discuss the practical implications of this research, and how you can integrate it into your own workouts.