Clear the Air of Random Noise to Focus Attention

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Society inundates people with stimuli that demand attention. Email, faxes, cellphones, and the constant bombardment of commercials litter our minds and clutter our memories. Life was simpler in years past. Today’s world puts more demands on your memory skills.

How many things can you pay attention to at the same time? Some people keep the television on all the time, thinking it’s “only in the background.” They mistakenly think that the distraction is “no bother unless I look at it.” Some teenagers do their homework with loud rock-and-roll music blasting their ears. If you have a teenager at home, you’ve probably asked him to turn down the music, thinking it’s interfering with his ability to remember what he’s studying — and you’re right.

Although he may think that he’s taking in what he needs to remember, he is limited in how much he can actually absorb. Think of your brain as capable of multitasking, but at a cost. When you multitask, you spread yourself thin, diluting your attention. If your attention is compromised, so is your ability to remember.

If you want to remember the important stuff, you need to know where to focus your attention. If you say, “I need to pay attention to everything,” you’re being unrealistic. You need a way to sift the wheat from the chaff. That is, you need to develop the ability to pay attention to what’s important and allow yourself to forget what’s not important.

Before you can improve your memory, you need to be realistic about your potential memory capabilities. You can improve your memory, but you don’t want to set impossible goals, such as the following:

  • Being able to pay attention to several things at once and remember them all with great accuracy
  • Expecting to improve your memory without effort
  • Assuming that you’ll remember everything you’ve ever experienced