Improve Memory by Improving Focus
I work with many people who tell me they have problems with memory. They complain that they just can’t learn new information the way they used to. They forget tasks and lose their keys. They come to me, deeply worried, asking if they are developing Alzheimer’s disease. These are usually young people, under the age of 50, and more often then not when I sit down with them it turns out that they are not having a memory problem, they are having a focus problem.
Focus, or the ability to pay attention, is critical for learning new information. Memory happens when information registers with your brain in working memory and then is consolidated into long term memory. If you aren’t able to focus in the first place then you aren’t going to remember whatever information you wanted to learn. Focus is the gateway to memory.
Plenty of things can disrupt your ability to focus. Worry and stress are big culprits; if your brain is busy thinking about a particular issue that is causing anxiety you have much less attention available for learning new information. Sometimes you can become so worried that you essentially have a broken record playing in your mind “what if, what if, what if…” and that becomes all you can hear. It’s nearly impossible to take in new information under those circumstances. Depression is another problem that blocks your focus. Poor concentration, meaning lack of focus, is actually one of the key symptoms of depression. Depression saps your mental energy and leaves you focused on how miserable you are feeling. Depression changes your ability to perceive events and process information, making everything look hopeless and bleak. If anxiety or depression are problems in your life, seeking care from a qualified mental health professional can restore your ability to focus as well as address the other problems these disorders cause.
Pain can be a massive detractor from the ability to pay attention and concentrate. The purpose of pain is to grab your attention for something in the environment that could be dangerous, and so it demands intellectual resources from the rest of your brain. In general this is a good thing, because pain is supposed to signal you to make changes. However sometimes there is nothing you can change and then the disruption to your concentration becomes an additional problem. Ongoing pain is a problem that typically needs to be addressed through multiple means with the help of a specialist in pain medicine.
And of course your environment makes a big difference in your ability to focus. Try studying or working on a project in a room with four other people talking – it’s going to be very slow going, if it happens at all. Clutter in a room can create a visual distraction. Television, even at a low volume can be extremely distracting because it provides both visual and auditory input. That’s part of the reason doing homework in front of the television is not recommended for children. Even if the homework gets done, they aren’t giving it their full attention.
No matter what the cause of your distraction, there are some simple things you can do to improve your ability to focus. Sometimes you know you need to be able to focus and learn so if you are able to arrange your environment to minimize distractions. Work in a quiet, uncluttered space if at all possible. If you aren’t able to keep your environment quiet try using headphones with white noise or non-distracting music. Much of the time, however, you will not be in a situation of sitting down to intentionally focus when important information comes your way. In that case, a notebook can be your best friend. Different arrangements work for different people but I recommend a single, pocket size notebook that can go everywhere with you and in which you can quickly jot down anything you want to remember. I like this solution because it is cheap, portable, and uncomplicated. It keeps everything in one place so that I always know where to look things up. There are actually two benefits to having a notebook handy. The first is that you have a written reminder handy when you need to use the information. The other is that the very act of writing something down increases your attention and focus which increases the chance you will remember the information in the first place.
Meditation is another tool that can improve your focus. Common medication techniques involve regularly practicing focus on your breath, an image, a phrase or a word. By frequently exercising your mind in this way your ability to focus in day to day life will increase because you have built up your mental muscles. Meditation can also be profoundly calming and can have beneficial effects on pain, anxiety, stress and depression.
If you are still having difficulty focusing despite trying some of these techniques, I recommend speaking with a physician. A detailed history of your difficulties with focus may lead the doctor to request some specialized testing that could more clearly delineate your difficulties.