Attention–or concentration– and memory are two critical mental skills and are directly related. In fact, many memory complaints have nothing to do with the actual ability to remember things. They come from a failure to focus properly on the task at hand.
Take the example of not remembering where you parked your car after shopping at the mall… It is likely that you did not pay much attention to where you parked the car in the first place, thus leaving your brain with few opportunities to register any information that could be recalled later to help you find your car. The same reasoning goes for not remembering where we put our glasses!
Many of our actions are performed automatically. By opposition, focusing attention is effortful. As you know, with age the brain needs more time to process information. Along with speed of processing, other brain functions decline. A crucial one is the ability to focus and ignore distraction.
As we age it thus get harder and harder to pay attention. But focusing our attention on the task at hand is key for better memory performance. What can we do then to improve concentration and memory?
One general solution is to keep the brain healthy. This can be done by adhering to the main pillars of brain health and maintenance: balanced diet, physical exercise, cognitive stimulation, stress management, and social engagement.
How to improve concentration
- Focus on the task at hand: If talking with someone: ask questions; if reading a book or a report: ask yourself how you would summarize what you just read to a friend or to your boss.
- In general, avoid and/or eliminate distractions. Tune out everything else. The harder the task, the more important it is to tune out distractions.
- Do not try to double-task, this will increase your errors and divide your attention. Attention is limited. When you try to do several things at once, you necessarily have to divide your attention and thus concentrate less on each individual tasks.
- Use meditation. Several studies have shown that meditation can be a good brain training tool that affects especially attentional / concentration skills.
How to improve memory
- Pay attention and concentrate! (see above)
- Relate to the information you are learning. The more personal the information becomes, the easier it is to remember it. Ask yourself how it makes you feel. Ask yourself where else you have heard this. Ask yourself whether there is something in your personal life related to this piece of information.
- Repeat the information: Come back to it more than one time. This has been found in tons of studies: repeated information is easier to recall. Spaced retrieval (a method with which a person is cued to recall a piece of information at different intervals) is one of the rare methods that show some results with Alzheimer’s patients.
- Elaborate on the information: think about it. Things that are concrete and have a clear meaning are easier to remember than abstract and vague ones. Trying to attach meaning to the information you are trying to memorize will make it easier to recall later. Your brain will have more cues to look for. For instance, try to picture the information in your head. Pictures are much easier to memorize than words. To remember figures and percentages it is much easier to picture these in a graph for instance. Relate the information to something you know already.