We have all done it: read the same paragraph over again, having daydreamed through it in a haze the first time, gaining nothing. Frustrated, we command ourselves to concentrate and try again.
Surely you’ve also experienced another common annoyance: being introduced to someone, only to forget his name before your conversation ends. How embarrassing when your new acquaintance greets you by name merely hours later, and your only response is, “Hi … you.”
Why can it be so difficult to concentrate? Why do we forget some things so quickly?
Interestingly enough, both of those conditions—difficulty in concentrating and forgetting things as soon as you hear them—are symptoms of the same problem. Fortunately, both are curable.
The Key to Memory
We think of memory as our ability to recall information: the name of a colleague or the answer to a question. But before a memory can be recalled, it must first be stored.
When you first encounter new information, be it a person’s name or an anecdote from a book, your brain collects the details into your working memory. From there, the information travels into your longer-term memory.
The trouble is, your working memory is extremely small. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, likens the size of your working memory to a thimble. “Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble,” he says. “That’s the challenge in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory.”
Meanwhile, you are constantly bombarded with firehose-streams of information. Your thimble can transfer a preciously tiny amount of that information back to the bathtub for permanent storage.
So if you want to remember something, you must concentrate: set your thimble under a single dripping faucet, ignoring the other streams of information. It turns out concentration is a real, tangible state of mind: Studies by biologists have proven that the act of concentrating releases hormones that set off a chain reaction of signals through various memory-forming areas of the brain, enhancing the brain’s immediate ability to store memories.
Lack of concentration, on the other hand, is the reason you forget someone’s name the moment you hear it. Instead of focusing on the name, you were thinking about what you were going to say, how the handshake felt or how the individual looked. You can’t recall the name later because it never made it from the thimble to the bathtub.
Overloading Your Brain
It takes no extra time to concentrate, but it does take significant effort.
There are more impediments to concentrating today than ever before. In our world of technological conveniences, information is instantly accessible in torrents—as is constant distraction.
Does a tiny distraction like an incoming text message affect your memory? Recall how small your working memory is. Every time a distraction pours in, the contents of your memory thimble overflow, and the old information is displaced by the new. The phenomenon is called “cognitive overload.”
The very design of the Internet leads us to cognitive overload. Unlike books, which are linear and focused, the Web is a hurricane of distraction. Using it, our brains, in addition to reading, must make constant decisions about clicking hyperlinks, flashing banners, pop-up windows and more. Information pours into our working memory at a dizzying rate. Our brains cannot store everything. Concentration—and thus memory—suffers.
How, then, can we concentrate?
Pondering Makes Perfect
Eliminate distractions. When reading or studying, turn off your music. Silence your cell phone ringer. Quit your e-mail program. Go to a quiet place if possible. Turn off all the information faucets except one.
When listening, focus your eyes on the speaker and imagine you are a translator, having to capture the meaning of every word.
Admittedly, you can’t always turn off all distractions. You may have a job that depends on timely access to e-mail and phone calls. But consider: Can you set your e-mail to check less often? Can you disable audio notifications of new messages on your phone? If not all the time, consider setting aside certain distraction-free periods.
More good news about concentration: You can get better at it. Research by biologist Eric Kandel has demonstrated that the makeup of our brains changes according to what we do. Neurons form new connections as we repeat tasks. The more connections that relate to a given activity, the easier that task becomes. That is not surprising: It’s why we get better at things we practice.
Less known until recently is that mental activities are also improved by repetition. Research by psychologist Sheila Crowell indicates that the acts of concentrating and remembering actually modify the brain in such a way that it becomes easier to learn in the future. The more we concentrate, the easier it becomes.
So if you want to improve your concentration in a world of distractions, engage in activities that require it. One of the easiest is to read books. If you’re used to reading only snippets on the Internet, you might find it difficult to focus for prolonged periods at first. But stay with it. As you concentrate—away from your computer, with your cell phone in silent mode—your neurons will go to work, and your powers of concentration will grow. ▪