How Increasing Your Brain’s ‘Digit Span’ Can Improve Overall Function


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Even though there is a mountain of research on sequential processing, and its usefulness as a measure of intelligence, for decades no one had thought to bring the research to the next logical level — to actually change peoples’ digit-span level. Finally, researcher and clinician Bob Doman decided to train people to increase their ability to do digit span.

A research study conducted by Doman in 2002 used exercises to help school children in Louisiana to increase their digit span. Within an eight-month time period, test scores (as measured by state mandated tests) increased at a level of approximately 2.9 years in reading recognition, 3.0 years in reading comprehension and 1.67 years in math computation. Make note: These children got no extra remedial work in reading or math, yet their test scores showed improvement far beyond a normal expectation of advancement from typical classroom learning. The finding suggests that when you increase digit span, you increase brain functionality on many other levels.

Doman has been training individuals to have greater digit-span capability for over 30 years. He has worked with over 30,000 people running the whole gamut of classifications — from the severely brain injured, to normal and gifted as well. Not to overstate Doman’s success, but in thousands of cases, he has changed cognitive functioning from severe dysfunctionality to normal and superior functioning. One client he worked with was born with severe brain damage and with an Apgar rating of 1 (the lowest rating of health that a newborn can have). The parents contacted Bob when their infant was only a month old. Through a series of assessment tests, Bob was able to understand precisely how this infant’s mind worked (and didn’t work), and specifically how to best impart information to it. Through diligence and hard work by the parents putting the infant, and then child she became, through the paces of targeted exercises, the child’s brain was able to build new neuronal pathways that compensated for the extreme damage. Sequential processing exercises was a major tool in Doman’s efforts toward the activation and normalization of this damaged brain, as it is in all of the programs he gives to his clients. At 14, this girl’s neurological functioning had developed to the point that she was able to attend a local community college, and at 16, a four-year college. Last seen, she was working on a Ph.D. at Columbia University in biological mathematics.

Doman laughs when he talks about his clients who have been able to raise their performance to a level 13 — repeating back 13 items. He explains that they can take an advanced course in astrophysics, or molecular biology, or whatever and say, “Wow. That was fun.”

It may be difficult, at first, to understand how remembering strings of meaningless numbers can have such a profound effect on the brain’s overall functioning — and on so many aspects of our lives that we don’t even normally associate with intelligence. Yet, when we grasp the importance of sequential processing — the foundation of practically every intellectual, cognitive and psychological function in the brain — we understand that we use it in practically everything we do, in all of our everyday activities. As children, we needed sequential processing to learn the various steps of tying our own shoelaces. Without sequential processing, we cannot construct or comprehend complex sentences; we can’t remember baseball scores from the beginning to the end of the game; we can’t remember the plot of a novel, nor recipes; we can’t tell jokes (or if we do, we forget the punchline), nor sing a song or play a musical instrument. Without sequential processing we are unable to draw a map from memory of the United States; we are unable to visualize our home when we are in a store intending to buy home furnishings. We can’t make change with money — or be able to think through any other math problem — unless we can sequentially process. (A powerful enactment of the experience and debilitating effects of having no short-term memory was depicted in one of my favorite movies, the powerful and poignant film, “Memento.”)

If you practice sequential processing every day for three months, you will notice substantial changes in your cognitive abilities. If you want to augment your children’s brain power, do the exercises with them on a daily basis. I did this with my daughter after I had been told that she needed to go to a special school for learning disability. Instead of finding such a school, I took her to Bob Doman, and we embarked on a series of exercises to normalize her brain functioning. She, indeed, entered a new school the next fall, but it was a traditional school, and she made Honor Role, and has continued to excel academically since. Exercising the sequentially processing ability takes only about 10 minutes. With children, you can substitute animals, or colors, or any fun list of things to make it a more joyful exercise. Making it fun with children is crucial. Otherwise, they will lose interest.

We can think about the brain as operating like a computer. The computer has storage space in the form of RAM. If our ability to do sequential processing is limited, it’s a little like not having enough RAM on your computer. Some things work just fine, others work, but they work only s-l-o-w-l-y or more crudely, and certain things become impossible altogether, resulting in frustration. However, when a computer has more RAM that you need for any single operation, it can store information, thus enabling it to work more quickly and efficiently. The same idea applies to having more processing space in human short-term memory. The more information you are able to take in sequentially, the more efficiently you can store information in long-term memory and retrieve this information when it is needed. And, the easier many aspects of life will become.

The operations of the brain can be broken down into “higher order” and “lower order,” depending on where in the brain the activity originates. Skillful communication, for instance, requires higher-order skills such as the ability to synthesize diverse pieces of information into a meaningful whole, or self-awareness, empathy and capacity for self-discipline, and a whole set of other skills that comprise our “emotional intelligence.” Comprehension of reading material is a higher-order skill, as is writing a letter, or balancing your checkbook. On the other hand, lower-order skills are the fundamental, building block skills that form the foundation for those higher-order skills, much as a building requires a structural foundation for stability. Sequential processing is a lower-order skill. It may be surprising that such a mechanical ability can be related to so many processes that are more sophisticated, but the truth is: the more complexity there is, the more we are dependent on basic, foundational skills.

Because low and high digit spans correlate with over-all cognitive functioning, the variability also often coincides with low and high abilities in the following areas: for children – academic function, decision making abilities, self confidence, attention span, behavior, and global maturity; for adults – productivity, functional competence, interpersonal skills, social maturity and leadership abilities.

Increasing digit span is one of the exercises conducted in the series of classes that I have created called Brainercize. Visit the website to find out more information about this innovative method of improving cognitive functioning.