The job that you do can change your brain, study

Restaurant workers whose job involved constantly keeping track of orders were better at tests of working memory updating.

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Learning may be defined as long-lasting changes that occur in behavior or behavioral potential due to experience. Previous research revealed associations between an individual’s occupation and cognitive abilities. However, the underlying causal relation is not always clear, and only a few studies focused on a critical component of executive functioning, namely working memory updating.

A new study zoomed in on the question of whether or not one particular type of occupation is related to cognitive ability. The study shows that job choice can affect a fundamentally important aspect of everyday brain function.

Working memory needs to be updated effectively for many daily activities, such as reading and holding a conversation. It is also related to improved academic performance. The study found that a job that challenges an essential aspect of cognitive functioning improves this ability too.

Study 1 examined whether restaurant ticket collectors (N = 53) have a better working memory updating ability than a group of security guards matched on relevant variables.

The job of the ticket collectors at this kind of well-known restaurant is difficult. A customer is given a ticket that details their order after placing one. They then deliver that ticket to the kitchen area’s ticket collector. The ticket collector reviews the order, remembers it, and notes the customer’s appearance. Then they inform the kitchen staff of the order. The kitchen delivers the food to the ticket collector when an order is ready, and the ticket collector then needs to remember which customer to deliver it to.

A ticket collector must constantly keep an eye on new information and keep their memory of who has ordered what updated to do their job correctly.

Hence, scientists noted, “This job is assumed to require a strong working memory updating ability.”

The team gave the ticket collectors and the security guards a working memory updating task, in which they viewed a sequence of numbers and had to constantly update their memory to hold in their mind just the previous three digits. The team found that the ticket collectors did better on this measure than the security guards, even after controlling for participants’ fluid intelligence (the kind of intelligence used in problem-solving) and various demographic variables.

But was their ability to update their working memory made better by their employment as ticket collectors, or were they already better at it?

The team conducted a second study to investigate whether the experience of the ticket collectors’ jobs may have contributed to improvements. For 20 days straight, 33 student volunteers received training on a computer simulation of the demands made on a ticket collector for 30 minutes each day.

These participants watched various animated characters in each session; each matched with a certain kind of beef noodles. (There were 30 different characters and six different types of noodles for the team to use.) The participants had to decide whether or not the person-food pairing in front of them in each trial was the same as one they had seen a predetermined number of times previously in the series.

Another 33 students participated in a control group that spent the same amount of time in the same university lab room doing sand paintings, a Tibetan Buddhist technique that demands focus.

The researchers discovered that the ticket collector simulation group’s participants displayed a clear, linear improvement on several working memory updating tests, including the digit updating task from the first study and a numerical n-back test, which is very similar to the training task but uses numbers instead of character-food order pairings. These advancements were not seen in the control group. These findings, therefore, provide credence to the claim that working as a restaurant ticket collector enhances working memory updating.

The second study’s participants may have developed a method, such as a mnemonic technique, to help them remember character-food pairings. This, rather than a fundamental improvement in working memory updating, may have led to the improvements, the researchers acknowledge. To further understand this, more study is required.

Scientists noted“The collective results provide further evidence of environmentally induced cognitive plasticity, in the form of repeated experience with occupation-specific demands affecting specific cognitive abilities.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Xin zhao, Liang Jin et al. Occupation shapes cognition? The case of restaurant ticket collectors’ working memory updating ability. Applied Cognitive Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/acp.4055

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