Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Attention, Please!

Libi Astaire

Misplaced your keys? Can’t remember what you were supposed to pick up at the grocery store? Before you panic, certain that early dementia has set in, consider this: Many people confuse poor memory with poor concentration. What’s the difference between the two? Is it possible to improve one or the other — or both?

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

sticky notesLiving in a tiny apartment has at least one advantage — the limited storage options make it easy to remember where things are kept. That’s why I panicked when I misplaced my grocery list. I always place my grocery list in the same spot — on the table near the door, near my purse, which I also don’t want to forget in my rush to get out the door. So when the grocery list wasn’t on the table (or under it, or behind, or anywhere else in the room), I began to wonder what was going on. I distinctly remembered writing the list. But after that, it was a blur.

I never found the list. But I did find a new worry: Was I beginning a new chapter in my life, a chapter called “Goodbye, Memory”?    

Current research on the topic reassured me that my memory may be just fine. The bad news, though, is that my lack of concentration may be the culprit. In the words of those who study these things: You can’t remember something that you never knew.


Why Mommy Can’t Remember

Many people confuse poor memory with poor concentration, but psychologists have developed definitions that can set the record straight. Memory is a mental faculty that enables us to process, store, and retrieve what we have learned or experienced. In very broad terms, memory can be divided into two groups: short-term memory, which enables us to remember a few things for a very short amount of time (somewhere between 5-30 seconds); and long-term memory, which has a practically limitless capacity and can store information for a lifetime.

Of course, memory is more complicated than that, and today there’s a lot of talk about something called “working memory.” Like short-term memory, working memory stores information temporarily. But the term is also used to describe how we organize and manipulate that information before it either gets upgraded to long-term memory or fades into oblivion.

One of the tasks of working memory is to ignore irrelevant external distractions and intruding thoughts. When we try to cram too much into short-term memory — for most of us, that’s more than four or five pieces of verbal and/or sensory information — working memory goes on strike.

Say you’re talking on the phone while mentally planning the menu for Shabbos while checking e-mails and listening for the washing machine to finish its cycle while taking a quick glance at the newspaper headlines — and while doing all this, you take off your eyeglasses. If you can’t find those glasses later, it’s not because you can’t “remember” where you put them; your working memory was so overloaded that it never registered the place you put the eyeglasses. You can’t retrieve information from long-term memory that was never stored there in the first place.

But we don’t have to live in a world of misplaced keys, eyeglasses, and cell phones — not to mention not wondering if we bentsched, added sugar to the cake recipe, or rescheduled Shmueli’s dentist appointment — because we have another tool in the brain’s toolbox: concentration, which is the ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of others. Memory and concentration are linked, because when we pay attention to what we are doing — or hearing or reading — we are more likely to recall the information later. Therefore, for most healthy people, improving your memory usually begins with improving concentration.


 To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha. To sign up for a weekly subscription click here.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

Evolution vs. Revolution
Shoshana Friedman I call it the “what happened to my magazine?” response
Up, Up, and Away
Rabbi Moshe Grylak What a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day
Where Do You Come From?
Yonoson Rosenblum Could they be IDF officers with no Jewish knowledge?
Heaven Help Us
Eytan Kobre Writing about anti-Semitism should rouse, not soothe
Work/Life Solutions with Chedva Kleinhandler
Moe Mernick “Failures are our compass to success”
An Un-Scientific Survey
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Are Jerusalemites unfriendly? Not necessarily
Out of Anger
Jacob L. Freedman How Angry Lawyer was finally able to calm down
5 Things You Didn’t Know about…Yitzy Bald
Riki Goldstein He composed his first melody at eight years old
When the Floodgates of Song Open, You’re Never Too Old
Riki Goldstein Chazzan Pinchas Wolf was unknown until three years ago
Who Helped Advance These Popular Entertainers?
Riki Goldstein Unsung deeds that boosted performers into the limelight
Your Task? Ask
Faigy Peritzman A tangible legacy I want to pass on to my children
Are You There?
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Emotional withdrawal makes others feel lonely, abandoned
A Peace of a Whole
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt Love shalom more than you love being right
Seminary Applications
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, as told to Ariella Schiller It’s just as hard for seminaries to reject you