Mindfulness is taking over psychology and the world, and for good reason. This ancient practice of being more present in every moment proves beneficial for anxiety, overall health and guess what else? Attention and memory!
What is mindfulness you ask? Mindfulness is simply “paying attention, to the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally”.
By paying attention on purpose, you can increase your awareness of what you’re experiencing and increase your capacity to remember things.
Why don’t we have all the awareness we need already? Well, many of us are distracted. If we are not distracted by something on the outside, such as the TV, then we are probably distracted by our thoughts. People will say, “I know I took a shower today, but I can’t remember any details of what happened.” That person may take this as evidence that she is developing dementia. What is more likely is that she was probably lost in thought. About what, who knows? The point is that there was probably little else to distract her in the shower, yet she just “wasn’t there.” Where was she? She may have been in the past, thinking about something that happened, replaying an event, wondering if she remembered to take her medication, re-doing a conversation where this time she really gets her point across. She may be in the future, planning what she will wear, practicing the conversation she will have with her daughter, reminding herself she needs to eat breakfast, remembering that the car is due for an oil change.
Do you see how not being “present” in the moment of the shower provided her little opportunity to make any memories about her shower?
You can’t make memories if you’re not “there.”
Now, daydreaming isn’t all bad, and I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t do it. It can be a very helpful process. What I want is to provide you with the skills to approach your world with intention, daydreaming when you want to and making memories when you want to.
I’ve touched a bit on how memories are made in the tips on Attention and Working Memory. Here I will describe how mindfulness makes making memories better and easier.
Let’s say a few years back, at the advent of digital television and while you could still get analog TV signals, you bought a new high definition TV because you really wanted to see the best possible images you can see on TV. You bring it home, plug it in, turn it on & the picture looks terrible! (This very thing happened to my husband & I had the pleasure of watching his displeasure).
That’s when you realize that you can’t watch high definition TV if you don’t have a high definition signal coming into the TV.
Attention or Awareness is the signal that feeds into our Memories. We can’t expect to have high quality or high definition memories if we are not sending high definition information into the memory system. Mindfulness allows you to make high definition memories. Having improved awareness enhances your attention, so there is more information available to memory circuits to create those memories.
Research has provided evidence that mindfulness practices also promote many positive changes in the brain including increasing the gray matter in areas of the brain important for consciousness and awareness of body states, short- and long-term memory, and complex cognitive processes such as planning, decision-making, attention, and short-term memory. Meditation has also been shown to reduce cortical thinning due to aging in the prefrontal cortex, and it has been shown to increase the activation of the left frontal regions of the brain, which lift mood.
The Raisin Exercise
During this exercise, we will spend some time paying careful attention to a raisin (or any type of food that you may have on hand). You may be thinking, “What good is that? I’m around [raisins] all the time.” But how often do you fully experience the [raisin]? This exercise is sort of like ‘stopping to smell the roses. You are going to eat the raisin, but before you dive right into that, you will spend some time taking it in through all our senses.
Allow 30-60 seconds for each step below.
Holding: Hold the raisin in your hand. Move it around your hands taking in the texture, the temperature, the firmness, etc. Imagine this is the first time that you are experiencing a raisin, and you must gather data to report back to someone about what you experienced.
Seeing: Take time to really see the raisin. Give it your full attention. Notice all of the contours, she shapes, color, etc. If your mind wanders during this step, which is common, just gently bring your awareness back to seeing the raisin.
Touching: Move your fingers around on the raisin, taking in its texture.
Smelling: Hold the raisin to your nose and breathe slowly. With each inhalation, really take in the fragrance of the outside of the raisin. Soak it all in.
Placing: Bring the raisin to your mouth to eat, but slowly experience every step of this process. Notice the movement of your arm as you bring the food to your mouth. Notice how your hand knows exactly where to go to meet your mouth. Place the food in your mouth, but don’t eat it right away. Spend a little time experiencing what the raisin feels like in your mouth.
Tasting: When you are ready, chew the raisin in your mouth with intention and full awareness of what happens when you bite the raisin. Notice any wave of flavor or texture that comes from each bite. Without swallowing, engage fully in this moment of simply chewing and tasting.
Swallowing: When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you swallow the raisin.
Following: See if you are aware of any sensations of the raisin leaving your mouth and moving into the stomach. Also, become aware of the way your body feels after completing this exercise.
The raisin exercise proceeds very slowly, but that doesn’t mean that doing things mindfully atomically means you have to do them more slowly. This exercise is slow because it is sort of like a “drill” for the skill of paying attention, other rehearsals can be done more in real time. You may choose to slow your activities down to get the most out of the experience, but that may not always be required.
The more you practice paying close attention and “making memories” the better you become at this skill and therefore better able to use it in situations that really count such as those situations where you get frustrated because you didn’t remember.
A good way to build up your “awareness muscle” is to practice awareness during routine tasks and activities. This provides you a lot of opportunity to exercise your memory and attention, and as a result you may even find that you may dread doing some of these activities less than you did before.
Brushing your Teeth
Taking a Shower
Leaving the house
Entering the House
Putting on Lotion
Washing your Hands
Opening the Mail
Loading the Dishwasher
Taking out the Garbage
Doing the Laundry
Driving the Car
What is your plan for your next mindfulness activity? Tell us on our Facebook page how it went & share stories about improving your memory.