Monday, 28 March 2011

Concentration and memory

I'm often asked about the link between concentration and memory, and it got me thinking.

Certainly, if you concentrate you can improve your memory. Lack of attention to what you are doing makes it difficult to remember doing it. That's one of the downsides of multitasking.

When you multi-task you rely on working memory, the memory you need to look up and dial a phone number, for example. It works well for that, but if you want to remember something you did today for another time, you need to concentrate well enough to allow the transfer of information from working memory to long term memory, from which you can retrieve it later.

This is really all memory training is, but it takes practice.

In 2008, health psychologist David Moxon from Anglia Ruskin University carried out a behavioural study that showed our attention span was now five minutes and seven seconds, compared to 12 minutes a decade previously. Not only that, the research suggested that this lack of attention and "five minute memory span" was costing Brits £1.6 billion worth of damage a year from domestic accidents - burnt out kitchens, lost keys, and over-run baths amongst them!

The same research showed that the 1,000 participants cited stress (18%) and "decision overload" (17%) as the main reasons for poor short-term memory and flagging attention span. But it's not age-related: the over-50s out-performed the younger age groups.

The good news is that your concentration levels, attention span, and memory can all be improved. As a result of this research, Moxon put together a series of exercises, a daily memory workout, reproduced here:

9 am
Memorise one friend's phone number from your mobile phone each day -- this will help expand your memory's capacity.

12 noon
Instead of reading the newspaper over your lunchtime break, complete a Sudoku or crossword puzzle -- this requires you to maintain concentration and will increase your attention span.

4 pm
Make a tea round for at least six of your colleagues without making a note of the details -- this requires you to hold multiple details in your mind.

6 pm
Write a shopping list but don't refer to it when you're in the supermarket -- you'll find that you remember more and more items each trip as your memory improves.

8 pm
Write a diary each night listing five key positive things that occurred during the day -- recall of events is key to keeping the mind fit and healthy.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The benefits of chess

How can you play chess if you're blind? I asked Ray Charles when I interviewed him in Paris in 2000, knowing his reputation not only as a musician and singer but also as a chess player of great skill.

"Aw, well, honey," he replied in that wonderful voice like wood smoke over maple syrup. "I ain't no Spassky or Fischer - but being blind has nothing to do with playing chess. It has nothing to do with sight. It has to do with memory and strategy and where the pieces are on the board. I can just touch the board and see where the horse is, where the bishop is, or the pawns. There's no luck in the game. None. That's why I like it. And that's the great thing about chess: everyone starts with the same amount of pieces. You either out think your opponent or he out thinks you."

They surely do, but some are better able to manipulate those carved wooden pieces than others. And like many skills, chess can be learnt and practiced and improved, yielding unexpected benefits in concentration, logical thinking, spatial awareness and socialisation, as research has shown.

There is something rather romantic about a game that features kings and queens, bishops, knights, castles and pawns. Sixteen pieces in all, two players, specific moves and 64 spaces in which to execute them. The rules are there, the limitations are set, but within these a combination of logic, memory and imagination create possibilities and outcomes that are infinite although the ultimate aim is the same: to checkmate the king.

Personally it's a game I struggle with. I am neither as ruthless or strategic as I need to be. I can only plan about three moves ahead and my ability to anticipate my opponent is poor. Both my children learnt to play before they were five, and before preconceived ideas about chess being anything other than fun got in the way of their ability to plan whole games and play with lethal efficiency. They were soon able to run rings around me, and pronounced me an unfit opponent, preferring to try to outwit each other.

It is also a game that provides intellectual challenge and development in surprising places - prisons, refugee camps, schools for the excluded. You can play this game as an equal even if the odds of life have been stacked against you. You can develop skills in chess and apply them elsewhere. You can compete, and win, even if you're blind, as Ray Charles discovered. He learnt in hospital when he took himself off heroin, cold turkey, and he played for the rest of his life.

And even if I play poorly I love it for its opportunity and challenge. I love chess purely for the idea of it, for the possibilities it evokes, and its ubiquity as it turns up time and time again in fiction and in fact as a metaphor for life.