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  • Sherrie All, PhD

Improve Memory by Improving Attention

Guess what? You can’t remember things that you don’t notice in the first place. Shocker, right? So, the first step to a better memory is working to improve your attention. Attention is the gatekeeper to a better memory. Here are some tips for improving attention to improve your memory.


Look up and around - Open your eyes. Simply being more aware can improve your attention. Putting in the effort to look around and making mental notes of where you parked your car or whether you locked the door, can do wonders for setting a good foundation for remembering things!


Stay “Present” - Dial down the internal chatter or the mental to-do list. In conversations, remind yourself that you will be able to come up with something to say after the person is finished talking in order to stop the mental rehearsal of your next point. This way you can really pay attention to what the other person is saying.


Get your hearing or vision checked and corrected if needed – Don’t let vanity get in the way of your brain health. Vision and hearing loss not only keep you from taking in current information, but over time it seems that they can weaken your whole brain. Brain cells that fire together, wire together, so if your brain is not getting good quality stimulation from your ears or your eyes, all the brain circuits that process that information (including your memory circuits) have less stimulation, and therefore appear to also weaken over time.


You may be saying to yourself, “I’m just not good at paying attention.” “I have ADD” or “I’ve always been bad at paying attention.” Well, keep in mind that the brain is plastic and very much capable of change. In fact, new research is showing that through brain exercises and through these very tips, people with attention problems caused by brain injury and people with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) are improving their attention.


Here are some of the strategies that are used to help people with attention deficits improving their attention – we list them here because they are also important for many of us:


Manage your environmentDistractions and interruptions are some of the biggest threats to attention. In today’s world, we are surrounded by so many sources of stimulation including the TV, computer, cell phone, radio, etc. Taking steps to manage these distractions and interruptions can be very helpful in improving attention and thereby improving memory.


Do one thing at a timeMulti-tasking is a myth! Our brains really don’t seem to process more than one thing at a time. What may feel like multi-tasking, for example checking your email while having a conversation, is really a function of your brain switching rapidly back and forth between the two tasks. Studies in young people show that this type of switching reduces performance by almost a full IQ category (10-15 points, say from average to low average), which for some people is about the same as being high on marijuana. This inability to multitask the way we think we can has influenced public policy in terms of laws and campaigns aimed at reducing cell phone use while driving.


In addition to not being very efficient, multi-tasking is now viewed by some brain researchers as being toxic for your brain. All the rapid attention switching can be fatiguing and even stressful, which can lead to an increase in the release of stress hormones, which can build up in the brain and proving toxic to brain cells. Therefore, a practice of doing one thing at a time may also help you preserve your cognitive reserve as you age, reducing your risk for dementia, in addition to enhancing your attention and memory now!


Bribe yourself – Often we have trouble paying attention simply because we are not motivated to do so. Sometimes we don’t admit this and just get mad at ourselves for not being able to pay attention. But surely you can think of examples where you had trouble concentrating simply because there was something else you would much rather be doing. So, increase your motivation to pay attention by creating some sort of reward (or bribe).


Psychological researchers are discovering that attention can be improved through both external and internal motivators, and you can exact some control over these motivators by “bribing yourself to pay attention.”


An old psychological principle called the “Premack Principle” is something you can use to increase your motivation in a lot of areas and in this case your attention. Simply put, the Premack Principle involves setting a rule that you must do something that in and of itself it not highly rewarding in order to earn something that is highly rewarding. Say, for instance, that one of your goals to increase your brain fitness is to read the newspaper every morning, but you have a really hard time motivating yourself to sit down and pay attention to it. On the other hand, you really like taking a shower in the morning and rarely miss that. You can use the Premack Principle to set the condition that you have to “earn” your shower by really attending to the newspaper for 15 minutes.


Get Plenty of Rest - Feeling tired, either by not sleeping well or from mental fatigue, can limit our attention. People who do not get enough, good quality sleep perform considerably worse on tests of attention, which can have a big impact on important tasks such as driving. Too little sleep has also been linked with an increased risk for stroke and a lower life expectancy. Even if you sleep enough hours but you snore or must wake frequently to go to the restroom, the quality of your sleep may also limit your attention and affect your health. Therefore, consulting a sleep specialist could pay large dividends for your brain health.


However, resting your brain doesn’t just involve sleep. Our brains get tired from too much attention, so just like our muscles, they need time to recover. This means that learning to “turn your brain off” or taking little “attention breaks” can also help your attention. Many of the techniques in this set of Memory Tips will teach you strategies for resting your brain even when you are awake, which evidence is showing may to be just as important as getting enough sleep.


Finally, it is also important to remember that emotions can interrupt our attention! Feeling anxious or being distracted by self-criticism or worried thoughts is often one of the biggest robbers of our attention. So, learning to relax is also very important for improving attention.


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