Concentration–or attention– and memory are two crucial 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.
For example, when you don’t remember where you parked your car at the mall. It is likely that you did not pay much attention to where you parked the car in the first place, since you were thinking about what you were going to buy…thus leaving your brain with little opportunity to process any information that could be recalled later to help you find your car.
Another example: Not remembering where we put our glasses…
Focusing attention is effortful. And as we age it often gets harder and harder to concentrate. But focusing our attention on the task at hand is key for better memory performance…so what can we do to improve concentration AND memory?
The first general solution is to optimize our brain health and performance, by adhering to the main pillars of brain fitness: balanced diet, physical exercise, cognitive stimulation, stress management, and social engagement. That will help improve a range of cognitive functions, including concentration and memory, and to maintain them in good shape over time.
Additionally, you can try these specific tips.
Tips to improve concentration
- Practice meditation. Multiple studies have shown that meditation can be a good brain training tool to improve attentional/ concentration skills.
- Be proactive, not passive: If talking with someone: ask questions. If reading a book, ask yourself how you would summarize what you just read.
- Do not multitask, since this will divide your attention. Attention is limited, so when you try to do several things at once you concentrate less on each individual task and, worse, you waste some or your limited attention and processing power in switching from one thing to the next and then back (there is a clear “transaction cost” when multi-tasking)
Tips to improve memory
- Start by improving concentration 🙂
- Personally relate to the information you are processing. Ask yourself where else you have heard this, whether there is something in your life related to this new piece of information, how it makes you feel.
- Repeat the information: Come back to it more than one time. This has been found in many studies: repeated information is easier to recall (remember that “cells that fire together wire together”). 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 results even with Alzheimer’s patients.
- Elaborate on the information: think about it, build on it. Things that are concrete and have a clear meaning are easier to remember than abstract and vague ones. For instance, try to picture the information in your head, since pictures are easier to memorize than words.
Putting it all together: Tips to better remember names
Yes, we all forget names, and often in the few seconds after we hear them. Most of the time this phenomenon is due to a lack of attention or concentration. Also, most names have no specific meaning and are thus hard to memorize.
Say you are introduced to Kim today:
- Pay attention to the name: Ask Kim to repeat her name if you have not heard it very well. Make a conscious effort of trying to memorize the name: Focus on it (“Her name is Kim. I want to remember it.”)
- Repeat it: Use the name several times in the conversation. (“What do you think of this, Kim?”) If relevant, use the person’s business card later on to read her name and reflect, just a few seconds, on the conversation. And picture her face later on in the day as you repeat her name.
Relate and elaborate on the name: Do you know someone else named like this? (“She seems quite happy, like the other Kim I know from the gym.”) Or relate the name to previous information (“Kim, as in Kim Wilde I used to listen to when I was a kid. Well, she sure doesn’t look like Kim Wilde!”).