Science & the brain: Improve your memory by paying attention

At 7:02 a.m., Charlotte tramples down the stairs with her scarf swinging wildly around her neck, belt not even through the last loop yet. Her mind, racing as fast as her heart, scrambles to remember where she put her car keys. She loses herself in the bottomless pit that’s her black bag, searching and searching. She rummages through the kitchen drawers, checks the bowl by the entryway, swipes her hands along every countertop in sight, all to no avail.
Now, she’s ten minutes late.
Yesterday, after a long day at work, Charlotte pulled into her driveway, exhausted. Trudging down the walkway, she saw lights blazing from every room in the house, running children in each window. Noise from her oldest son’s room, banging from the pots and pans in the kitchen — her husband preparing dinner. She turned the doorknob — a signal for the troops. Her three energetic children immediately swarmed her. Her husband came out of the kitchen and greeted her too. Finally, she thumped her black bag to the ground. She engaged in high fives and hugs as her husband reached in to kiss her hello.
Charlotte fell prey to a perfect storm: the misallocation of her attention.
She tried to pay attention to everything, but her brain, with its limited cognitive capacity, can only store the information Charlotte selectively attends to. Last night, Charlotte unknowingly came face to face with her brain’s limited capacity — focusing her attention on her family rather than the moment she set aside her car keys.
Our working memory is responsible for keeping important information on-hand so we can use it to direct goal-oriented behaviors. Our brain has a limited amount of cognitive resources — think of them like players in an orchestra. If all of the players are focused on the task at hand, the music is euphoric. If, on the other hand, some members are absent, the music fails to have the same effect. Similarly, when we are distracted, it is as if our orchestra is missing some of its members. We cannot expect our working memory to be able to perform at its best if it’s distracted, just as our orchestra is unable to produce the same sensational music with missing players: In our scenario, our car keys are bound to fall through the gaps of the missing notes.
The simple solution to this predicament is to pay attention to the important task at hand. But, becoming mindful of our actions takes hard work. “Mindfulness is paying close attention to an object leading to the retention of the data so as to make sense of the information delivered by our cognitive apparatus… and [have] the ability to recollect such experience in the future,” says George Dreyfus, professor of Religion at Williams College, in his article “Is Mindfulness Present-Centered and Non-Judgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Dimensions of Mindfulness.” We must essentially train our brain to “turn off” its natural tendency to check out everything that’s going on, says Dreyfus. It is our adaptive instinct to give some attention to all of the stimuli in our surroundings, but we must teach ourselves to focus on what is really important in the moment, if we want to remember it later.
This cognitive skew on the term “mindfulness” might appear unusual. Often, mindfulness is associated with personal and spiritual connotations — and concepts such as selective attention and working memory are unlikely to be implicated. But, in fact, mindfulness — the same mindfulness conventionally thought of as the practice of bringing bare, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment — has been found to significantly improve working memory.
Dreyfus explains: “By paying close attention, practitioners of mindfulness strengthen their cognitive control because they increase their ability to retain information and thus see their true significance rather than being carried away by their reactions. What is well attended to can be maintained by working memory and thus become available for appropriate evaluation.” Working memory is thus ameliorated due to the increased retentional capabilities elicited by mindfulness.
Now more than ever, mindfulness training can be obtained through special programming (such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR), home phone sessions, retreats and institutions. While these methods are extremely effective, they can also be inconvenient and expensive for some.
Luckily, mindfulness is just a skill, and like all skills, with practice it can be mastered. We all have the capability to enhance our working memory by paying close attention to being present in the moment, thereby allowing our brains to encode a specific experience properly for easy future retrieval.
For starters, simply try to be mindful during a few routine daily tasks. Maybe while brushing your teeth you become aware of how your teeth feel with each brush stroke, or the unique noise that is created from the friction between tooth and bristle. As you become more comfortable with this practice, try it with more tasks, and in a variety of different situations. While waiting in line or stuck in traffic, rather than becoming stressed or frustrated, take this as an opportunity to breathe and listen to your body. Give this potentially negative moment a positive spin by focusing inward on your breath and body. Your breath can function as a focal point, allowing you to bring your attention back to the present moment. Returning to your breath in times of anxiety, stress, fear and frustration is an essential aspect of mindfulness.
If you find yourself becoming proficient at these skills and interested in pursuing mindfulness training more seriously, consider meditating for short intervals each day. Meditation allows for intense periods of attention, ultimately allowing mindfulness to naturally permeate daily living with little effort.
These powerful steps can bring the practice of mindfulness into your life. Honing these skills will allow your brain to be more efficient and effective at paying attention to what matters. Not only will you come to enjoy each moment of your life more, but you may even find that you remember where your car keys are come morning.

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