Forget the persistent myth that everything is remembered; that our brains are video cameras whirring away recording everything, and that such 'hidden' knowledge can be brought to light by a hypnotist or alien artefact. Such things are the stuff of fantasy. Of course, there is a nugget of truth there: we can, and do, remember things we've paid no conscious attention to. Sometimes the right question can elicit memories we didn't know we had, in more detail than we imagined we could have. But for the most part, what's not noticed is not remembered. Attention is crucial to memory.
In particular, attention is crucial to good encoding. That is, the construction of memories that will be easily accessed.
In study, of course, we become especially aware of the connection between attention and memory. That's because learning is all about the deliberate construction of accessible memories.
But attention is somewhat of a bugbear: we all recognize its importance, but improving it is no easy task. Nor does research have as much to offer as it might. There are no quick and easy 'fixes' to failing concentration, to the difficulties of focusing on your work when your mind is full of other things.
Here's the most important thing to know when it comes to understanding attention: Attention and working memory are inextricably entwined. Indeed, it's thought that your working memory capacity reflects the extent to which you can control your attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information or competing demands.
In other words, the undeniable differences between people’s working memory capacity are not so much because people differ in how much information they can keep active, but because they vary in their ability to control attention.
Controlling attention has two main aspects:
- your ability to focus on one thing
- your ability to ignore distracting and irrelevant information.
It now seems likely that an erosion in the ability to ignore distraction is the principal reason for the cognitive decline so often seen with age.
Your ability to ignore distraction is also challenged by other circumstances, such as stress and anxiety, sleep deprivation, busy environments.
Improving your attention, then, is a complex task, that should be approached from multiple directions:
- Quietening your mind (by reducing your stress and anxiety; by learning how to displace concerns from your working memory; by taking quiet moments; through meditation)
- Quietening your environment ('nature breaks' are also helpful)
- Understanding how working memory works
- Practicing to achieve flow.