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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.


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