More Tips for Retaining, Maintaining, and Regaining Concentration and Memory
Introduction – Recap
“How can I regain my memory and concentration?”
Today’s world is full of information, as well as information storage devices – so much so, that we may place less and less emphasis on using our minds efficiently and effectively. At some point perhaps, we find it necessary to regain memory and concentration that has been misplaced or has become rusty from disuse. Many approaches and helpful hints are reflected in the thousands of articles available to answer this question (some of the best are linked at the end of this article), ranging from the expert insights of alternative healer Tatjana-Mihaela to the tips you will read here, gleaned from years of collecting ideas from everyday reading.
My previous article “A Short Course in Retaining, Maintaining, and Regaining Concentration and Memory” focused on some physical aspects of using memory and concentration effectively. These tips included the following:
•Get the right amount of sleep on a regular schedule.
•Good exercise and good nutrition are very important.
•Some supplements (fish oil and other omega-3 fatty acids) can give long-term benefits.
•Caffeine, ginseng, and peppermint can help in the short term.
•Good mental exercise helps to keep your mind young.
•Learn new things, and challenge yourself!
This article will continue to focus on physical factors; future ones will look at some how-tos for sharpening memory and concentration through processes of thought and brainwork.
Besides noticing whether you are getting enough and regular sleep, good physical exercise and good nutrition, helpful supplements for long-term or short-term help, and good mental exercise, it is wise to remember that some specific conditions can interfere with optimal brainwork, including medications, surgeries or illnesses and recovery from them, and simply pain. Some people experience temporary changes (perhaps even for several weeks) in memory and concentration following an MRI. (On the other hand, some mood disorders are helped by exposure to magnetism.) Some mental illnesses affect the patient’s ability to remember.
If you are not at your best physically, be sure to give yourself permission to take time to recover mentally as well as physically. Utilize painkillers, if you need them. Positive thinking and optimism go a long way towards recovery. Keep a good balance between self-acceptance and self-motivation, pushing yourself to move ahead even if you don’t feel like it, but at the same time realizing that present circumstances may place very real limits on your abilities.
Tension from sources as simple as tight clothing, shoes and headbands, tight ponytails or braids, uncomfortable seating, poor posture, inadequate lighting, bloated feelings from recent meals or carbonated beverages, and other external factors can interfere with your concentration and thinking ability. Some of us are more sensitive to these distractions than others, and it may not be particularly helpful for you to tell yourself “I shouldn’t let this bother me so much.” Some people may be helped by that kind of mind-over-matter attitude, but a lot of us will benefit more from simply correcting the problem, usually by removing the offending article or by avoiding it in the future.
Take inventory also of your daily energy cycles. For decades, NASA scientists have studied human diurnal cycles to optimize astronauts’ work when they lose the day-night, light-dark alternation that we experience on earth. Among their interesting findings is the fact that humans experience changes in blood volume throughout the day and along with them some changes in energy level. One report said that the mind is best able to handle mathematical problems early in the day, shortly after awakening. Mid-morning seems to be best for physical activity. Early afternoon normally means a low-energy, sleepy phase which may actually require a nap.
This sketchy daily outline is supported by years of observation and research - some going back to the 1930s - showing that some people are inclined to be larks (early risers, with energy earlier in the day) and others to be owls (later risers, with energy later at night). For anyone who is uncertain of their chronotype, their place on the lark-owl continuum, a brief self-assessment tool (a modified verson of the respected Horne-Ostberg Test) can be found here, on the BBC News website. But even here, the information may need to be modified, depending on the age of the individual. The hours of the evening that are considered early for a college student would likely be perceived as somewhat later for middle-aged persons.
If you know your own type – lark vs. owl – and can observe your own rising and falling energy levels throughout the day, then you should be in a good position to use the specific type of energy that you have at its peak. If you are a lark, take care of mental tasks early in the day and again after the early afternoon lull. If you are an owl, you will probably need an extra hour or two after awaking before you experience your morning mental sharpness. And you may have a “metabolism peak” at the time the larks are falling asleep. Use this knowledge about yourself so that your memory and concentration can work at the optimal level.
Observe the Weather
A recent study on yawning mentioned that a cool brain works best and is most alert. One theory of the purpose of yawning is that it cools the brain by bringing a rush of air (cooler because of being rushed) across a wide space that is separated from the brain only by a relatively thin layer of tissues, the soft palate.
We all tend to feel groggier and duller when the weather or the environment is warm. So, what to do? Dress for the weather or building where you will be. Dress in layers of clothing (even light layers for warmer situations) that can be adjusted to suit your personal comfort, even if it is quite different from others’. Change the thermostat, if that is possible, or use an electric fan or hand-powered paper or cloth fans.
Yawn, if you need to and if you are in a situation where that would not be perceived as rudeness. If you can’t yawn, try “sipping” a gush of air to produce a similar brain-cooling effect. Drink something cold! Even ice-water can help you to become more alert and aware. High humidity also has a brain-numbing effect. Use a de-humidifier if possible, or at the very least use climate control and/or fans to stir the air.
Don’t discount the effect of specific weather conditions, such as high or low pressure systems, bright sunshine, thunderstorms, and specific wind types, such as the foehn wind. For an excellent and concise description of the way weather affects our reflexes, attentiveness, and moods, check out http://weatherandhealth.net/physiological-psychological.html. This site includes a link to a collection of daily health maps based on weather conditions across the continental USA (even to the extent of including “bad hair days”): http://www.intellicast.com/Health/Attentiveness.aspx
Nutrition in the Short Term
Many articles on memory and concentration focus on the importance of overall good nutrition and supplements that specifically help with brain function. Never discount the importance of feeding your brain right! Keeping your brain healthy includes paying attention to the foods you eat as a general rule, over time.
But be aware also that your ability to focus and concentrate and to perform well mentally may be affected by the exact foods you ate only an hour or two (or even just fifteen minutes) ago – not just those that you may be allergic to (as mentioned in the previous article). Recent focus on the glycemic index and glycemic load of foods has pointed out the benefits of eating “slow” foods (foods that are digested slowly, with less insulin) for many people, especially for diabetics (for whom it is crucial) and for people who wish to lose weight. Paying attention to glycemic index and load can also help you achieve your mental peak performance.
The advantage to your brain of eating “slow” foods is that your blood sugar level rises and falls more evenly with them than with “fast” foods. A type of functional hypoglycemia can be the result of eating fast foods. That is, the food may give a quick burst of energy, both physical and mental, but because of the exaggerated release of insulin, the blood sugar burns out quickly (like tissue paper on a bonfire), soon giving an abrupt crash in energy and in the ability to focus.
One good website to check out for suggestions of slow foods is http://www.diabetes-blood-sugar-solutions.com/; http://www.diabetes-blood-sugar-solutions.com/free-glycemic-index.html. There are some real surprises on the list of suggested slow foods (including dill pickles and Uncle Ben’s converted rice), so it is worth checking out. Another chart of nearly 2500 foods, including convenience or fast-foods from around the world, can be found at http://www.mendosa.com/gilists.htm. By far the easiest chart to use, in my opinion, is http://www.glycemicindex.ca/glycemicindexfoods.pdf, but it does not have the world-wide variety of the previous chart.
If you have problems with the mental effects of blood-sugar-crash, it may be helpful to keep a stash of snacks at your worksite, if at all possible. Some good options: corn tortillas or chips; oatmeal (porridge) – not sweetened/flavored; apples, apple juice; oranges, orange juice; milk, yogurt, cheese; dried bean products, including hummus, other bean dips, and “cowboy caviar”; whole wheat crackers, pumpernickel bread, whole-wheat pita; peanuts, soy nuts, natural (not sweetened) peanut butter; pâté; beef jerky or beef sticks.
Many of these are convenient and easy to purchase, if not possible to keep at your desk or in an office kitchenette. They can help even out the effects of fast-glycemic foods and meals by providing helpful, evenly timed blood sugar, to help prevent or correct that groggy, foggy, space-y, practically out-of-body feeling that comes with a blood sugar crash.
Change Your Environment
Although it’s not always possible to avoid them completely, do as much as you can to minimize distractions that make for difficult focus and concentration. This may involve putting away clutter or other distracting items, working in a different room, turning your desk or workspace around, or moving to an entirely different location (the quiet room of a library, perhaps?). One of my favorite changes in location is a local bakery-coffeehouse. In addition to tables for the diners, it has several nooks full of comfy stuffed chairs and sofas right next to an enclosed fireplace; a low table and convenient electrical outlets make it a great place to work occasionally.
But for many people, and for most people at some time, it is simply not possible to change location. In some of these cases, it might be possible to try something a bit quirky or radical – wear blinders! I don’t mean the kind of blinders that horses wear, but follow the same principle. If you are distracted by your surroundings – and if you can get away with it – try wearing an old-fashioned bonnet or a large wraparound visor, to help direct your attention, your focus and concentration on whatever task is directly in front of you. Obviously, there are many situations where that is not possible at all, but if your situation allows it and if you need it, try it out.
To summarize, check out these factors that may affect your ability to focus and concentrate:
- tension and discomfort in your body;
- your personal diurnal rhythms;
- weather conditions and climate control within your building;
- your blood sugar, affected by recent meals and snacks;
- distractions in your immediate environment.
Change what you can, to make it possible to do your best work at the best time; and become aware of the effects of these factors, so that you can adapt as necessary, and so that they will not affect you so negatively in the future.
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