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.

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