attention problems

Meditation's cognitive benefits

A critical part of attention (and working memory capacity) is being able to ignore distraction. There has been growing evidence that meditation training (in particular mindfulness meditation) helps develop attentional control, and that this can start to happen very quickly.

For example:

  • after an eight-week course that included up to 30 minutes of daily meditation, novices improved their ability to quickly and accurately move and focus attention.
  • three months of rigorous training in Vipassana meditation improved attentional control.
  • after eight weeks of Mindfulness Training, Marine reservists during pre-deployment showed increased working memory capacity and decreased negative mood (this training also included concrete applications for the operational environment and information and skills about stress, trauma and resilience in the body).
  • after a mere four sessions of 20 minutes, students produced a significant improvement in critical cognitive skills — and a dramatic improvement when conditions became more stressful (provided by increasingly challenging time-constraints).

There seem to be several factors involved in these improvements: better control of brainwaves; increased gray matter density in some brain regions; improved white-matter connectivity.

Thus, after ten weeks of Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice, students showed significant changes in brainwave patterns during meditation compared to eyes-closed rest for the controls. These changes reflected greater coherence and power in brainwave activity in areas that overlap with the default mode network (the brain’s ‘resting state’). Similarly, after an eight-week mindfulness meditation program, participants had better control of alpha brainwaves. Relatedly, perhaps, experienced Zen meditators have shown that, after interruptions designed to mimic spontaneous thoughts, they could bring activity in most regions of the default mode network back to baseline faster than non-meditators.

Thus, after an 8-week mindfulness meditation program, participants showed increased grey-matter density in the left hippocampus , posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction , and cerebellum , as well as decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala . Similarly, another study found experienced meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus and the right orbitofrontal cortex, and to a lesser extent the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal gyrus.

These areas of the brain are all closely linked to emotion, and may explain meditators' improved ability in regulating their emotions.

Thus, long-term meditators showed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains and those of age-matched controls, meaning that meditators’ brains were better able to quickly relay electrical signals. The brain regions linked by these white-matter tracts include many of those mentioned as showing increased gray matter density. Another study found that a mere 11 hours of meditation training (IBMT) produced measurable changes in the integrity and efficiency of white matter in the corona radiata (which links to the anterior cingulate cortex, an area where attention and emotion are thought to be integrated).

It’s an interesting question, the extent to which poor attentional control is a reflection of poor emotional regulation. Obviously there is more to distractability than that, but emotion and attention are clearly inextricably entwined. So, for example, a pilot study involving 10 middle school students with ADHD found that those who participated in twice-daily 10 minute sessions of Transcendental Meditation for three months showed a dramatic reduction in stress and anxiety and improvements in ADHD symptoms and executive function.

The effects of emotion regulation are of course wider than the effects on attention. Another domain they impact is that of decision-making. A study involving experienced Buddhist meditators found that they used different brain regions than controls when making decisions in a ‘fairness’ game. The differences reflected less input from emotional reactions and more emphasis on the actual benefits.

Similarly, brain scans taken while experienced and novice meditators meditated found that periodic bursts of disturbing noise had less effect on brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making for experienced meditators compared to novices — and very experienced meditators (at least 40,000 hours of experience) showed hardly any activity in these areas at all.

Attention is also entwined with perception, so it’s also interesting to observe that several studies have found improved visual perception attendant on meditation training and/or experience. Thus, participants attending a three-month meditation retreat, showed significant improvements in making fine visual distinctions, and ability to sustain attention.

But such benefits may depend on the style of meditation. A study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation (Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP)) found that DY meditators were dramatically better at mental rotation and visual memory tasks compared to OP practitioners and controls (and only if they were given the tasks immediately after meditating). Similarly, a study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks found that, during "one-point" meditation, monks were significantly better at maintaining their focus on one image, when two different images were presented to each eye. This superior attentional control was not found during compassion-oriented meditation. However, even under normal conditions the monks showed longer stable perception compared to meditation-naïve control subjects. And three months of intense training in Vipassana meditation produced an improvement in the ability of participants to detect the second of two visual signals half a second apart (the size of the improvement was linked to reduced brain activity to the first target — which was still detected with the same level of accuracy). Similarly, three months of intensive meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones.


You can read about these studies in more detail in the aggregated news reports on meditation. Three studies were mentioned here without having appeared in the news reports:

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Rawlings, N. B., Francis, A. D., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2009). Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence. J. Neurosci., 29(42), 13418-13427. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1614-09.2009

Tang, Y.-Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. I. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649 -15652. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011043107

Travis, F., Haaga, D., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Arenander, A., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., et al. (2010). A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice. Cognitive Processing, 11(1), 21-30. doi:10.1007/s10339-009-0343-2



Estrogen's effect on memory & learning

Estrogen's effect on the brain is a complex story, one which we are only beginning to understand. We know it's important for women, but we're not sure about the details. One of the problems is that it appears to interact with stress. There are two aspects to estrogen's effects on women: normal monthly fluctuations in estrogen levels, and menopause.

It's also important to distinguish post-menopause (once you have completely stopped menstruating) from perimenopause (the years of menstrual irregularity leading up to this).

In general, the last few years of research seem to be coming to the conclusion that any cognitive problems women experience as they approach menopause is limited, both in time and in task, and depends in part on other factors. For example, those who experience many hot flashes may have poorer verbal memory, but the main cause for this may be the poorer sleep quality; those who are distressed or experience mood changes may find their memory and concentration affected for that reason.  These findings suggest the best approach to dealing with cognitive problems in perimenopause is to tackle the physical and/or emotional causes.

Post-menopause is different. Post-menopause is all about low estrogen levels, and the importance of estrogen for brain function. Nevertheless, estrogen therapy for postmenopausal women has had inconsistent results; there has even been some research suggesting it may increase the risk of later dementia. There is also some suggestion that it may not help those women who have cognitively stimulating environments, or are highly educated. And other indications that timing might be critical -- the age at which you begin hormone therapy. At the moment, we simply have too little clear evidence to warrant recommending hormone therapy for cognitive reasons (particularly in light of the possible cancer risk), or to know when it might be effective.

Excitingly, however (because there is no downside!), there is some evidence that physical exercise can counter the cognitive decline postmenopausal women may experience. There's also a study suggesting that the effect of low estrogen after menopause is not to impair cognition but simply to change it -- however, because women aren't prepared for, or understand, these changes, they perceive it as impairment. That would suggest that what is needed is an education program in how the brain changes (but first we have to understand exactly how it does change!).

See news reports

Sleep and cognition in children

A U.S. survey provides evidence that both children and adolescents tend to be getting less sleep than needed.

Depression, lower self-esteem, and lower grades, have all been found to be correlated with sleep deprivation in middle-school children.

Sleep disturbance in infants and young children has also been found to be associated with lower cognitive performance.

We all know that lack of sleep makes us more prone to attentional failures, more likely to make mistakes, makes new information harder to learn, old information harder to retrieve ... We all know that, right? And yet, so many of us still go to bed too late to get the sleep we need to function well. Of course, some of us go to sleep early enough, we just can’t get to sleep fast enough, or are prone to waking in the night. (Personally, I can count the times I’ve slept through the night without waking in the last fifteen years on my fingers).

I talk about the effect of sleep on memory elsewhere; I want to talk here about a sleep problem that we don’t tend to think about so much — the sleep deficit children are running.

A survey commissioned by the National Sleep Foundation found that 3-to-6-year-olds in the U.S. get about 10.4 hours sleep nightly, while experts recommend 11 to 13 hours. 1st graders to 5th graders who should be getting 10 to 11 hours are averaging just 9.5 hours.

And a study of middle-school children (11 to 14 year olds) found a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and depression, lower self-esteem, and lower grades. "The fewer hours of sleep that children got, the more depressed they were, the higher number of depressive symptoms [they had], and the lower their self-esteem and the lower their grades."

The second largest growth spurt occurs during these years (usually 10-14 for girls; 11-16 for boys), so this is a time when a lot of sleep is needed. But it’s also a time when children become more capable and more independent; when they’re likely to start taking on a lot more activities, work harder and longer, and are monitored less by their parents and caregivers. So ... it’s not surprising, when we stop and think about it, that a lot of these children are starting to pick up the bad habits of their parents — not getting enough sleep.

Which also points, in part, to the solution: if you’re a parent, remember that your children are, as always, modeling themselves on you. And sleep habits usually reflect a household pattern. If you’re a teacher, remember you need to educate the family, not just the child.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified adolescents and young adults (ages 12 to 25 years) as a population at high risk for problem sleepiness based on "evidence that the prevalence of problem sleepiness is high and increasing with particularly serious consequences."

Sleep disturbance in infants and young children has also been found to be associated with lower cognitive performance. Previous studies have looked at the severe end of the spectrum of sleep disorders — obstructive sleep apnea. More alarmingly, a new study of 205 5-year-old children found even mild sleep-disordered breathing symptoms (frequent snoring, loud or noisy breathing during sleep) were associated with poorer executive function and memory skills and lower general intelligence.

Before you panic, please note that some 30% of the participants had SBD symptoms, so it’s hardly uncommon (although there may have been a bias towards children with these symptoms; it does seem surprisingly high). You might also like to note that I personally had a blocked nose my entire childhood (always breathed through my mouth, and yes, of course I snored) and it didn’t stop me being top of the class, so ...

Nor is the research yet developed enough to know precisely what the connection is between SBD and cognitive impairment. However, it does seem that, if something can be done about the problem, it is probably worth doing (in my case, taking me off dairy would probably have fixed the problem! but of course noone had any idea of such factors back then).

Here’s a few links that may be of interest to parents and teachers:

ScienCentral article on the middle-school study:

The NSF Sleep poll 

a look at the school start times debate (I find this fairly amazing actually, because here in New Zealand, our children usually start school around 9am; the thought of kids starting school at 7.30 sends me into a spin!)

The National Sleep Foundation also has a site for children who want to learn about sleep and healthy sleep habits: For children from 7 up; with educational games and activities, as well as a downloadable copy of NSF’s new Sleep Diary designed especially for children.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 newsletter.

Forgetting to do things

Forgetting future tasks and events is the most common type of memory failure

Older adults are in general no worse at this type of remembering than younger adults

Older adults may have more difficulty at remembering to do actions at particular times

Older adults also need to make more effort in situations when an action cannot be performed immediately, but must be held in memory for a brief period.

The other day I was sitting in the sunshine in my living room going through some journal articles I'd photocopied. I realized I needed to staple the pages together and went down to my study to get the stapler. Approaching my desk, I decided to check my email while I was there. And then, I decided to check my library account online to see whether a book I had requested had turned up. When I'd done that, I went back upstairs to my papers. Where I realized, of course, that I'd forgotten the stapler.

This type of memory failure — going to do something, getting sidetracked, doing something else and forgetting the original task — is familiar to all of us. As are everyday memory failures like forgetting to put the garbage out; forgetting to take medication at the right time; forgetting a dentist appointment (although there's more than one reason for that!).

This type of memory failure — forgetting the future, as it were — is a failure of a type of memory called prospective memory, and it is probably the most common type of memory failure older adults suffer from. And probably the biggest concern.

It's a concern because it's a failure of memory that has consequences, and those consequences are often not only obvious to ourselves, but also to others. Which makes us feel worse, of course.

But it's not just a matter of being embarrassed. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to thoughts that they are "losing" their memory — and the fear of Alzheimer's lurks in all of us.

So, should you be worried if you forget what you're doing?

Like other types of forgetting or absent-mindedness, it depends on the degree of your forgetfulness. But prospective memory failure is common among older adults for a very good reason. Not because it's a precursor of cognitive impairment, but because it's the most common type of memory failure for everyone.

In fact, older adults in general are no worse than anyone else in this particular memory domain, although they may worry about it more (because they worry about any memory failure more).

In some aspects of prospective memory, older adults are actually better than younger adults! One reason for this is that they are more likely to use memory aids — like writing down reminders, or putting reminder objects in strategic places — to help them remember.

However, it does seem that older adults may do less well at remembering things that have to be done at particular times, and one reason for this seems to be that they tend to be poorer at monitoring time. In these cases, it's therefore a good idea to use timers as reminders.

Older adults also seem to have more trouble in the situation when a remembered intention cannot be performed immediately, but must be held in memory for a brief period. Even 5-10 seconds is too long! Tasks that you are "just about" to perform, but in fact are not doing that very second (because you have some other intervening task to do first) are probably particularly dangerous because you don't feel a need to make an effort to remember them (because you are "just about" to do it). But without rehearsal, information falls out of working memory (the stuff we're holding in the conscious "forefront" of our mind) in seconds. So you do need to make an effort. And often, that's all it needs.

You can read more about planning memory strategies in my ebook on planning memory.

You can download a free extract (pdf).

I have also extracted the 20-item questionnaire about performance on remembering particular types of intention, designed to help you get a better idea of your present performance on intention memory tasks, and to establish those specific tasks you most wish to improve. The quiz is in printable format.

Short-Term Memory Problems

Short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.

Attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.

You need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.

Many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

Many people, particularly as they get older, have concerns about short-term memory problems: going to another room to do something and then forgetting why you’re there; deciding to do something, becoming distracted by another task, and then forgetting the original intention; uncertainty about whether you have just performed a routine task; forgetting things you’ve said or done seconds after having said or done them; thinking of something you want to say during a conversation, then forgetting what it was by the time it’s your turn to speak, and so on.

This is clearly an issue for many of us. Part of the reason, I believe, is simply that we expect too much from ourselves. For example, research has shown that even a very, very short delay between recalling an intention and being able to carry it out is sufficient to dramatically reduce the likelihood that you will remember to do the intended action — we are talking about a delay of only 10 seconds!

The problem is exacerbated by age (I’m not talking about advanced age — I’m afraid certain aspects of cognitive processing begin to decline as early as the 30s).

Part of the problem is also that we tend to believe that we don’t need to do anything to maintain a thought, particularly when it has “popped” into our minds easily. But current estimates are that unrehearsed information lingers in working memory for less than two seconds!

Some of these problems are dealt with in my article on action slips (these problems are not, strictly speaking, a failure of memory, but a failure in attention), and in my e-book on Remembering intentions.

But in this article I want to talk about another aspect: the relationship between working memory, and attention (and, as it happens, intelligence!).

In my article on working memory and intelligence I talk about the difference between crystallized and fluid intelligence — that fluid intelligence is probably a better measure of what we think of as “intelligence”, and that working memory capacity is often used synonymously with fluid intelligence. A new theory is that the relationship between working memory and fluid intelligence is due to the ability to control attention.

This theory emphasizes the role of attention in keeping information active (i.e. in working memory), and argues that working memory capacity is not, as usually thought, about the number of items or amount of information that can be held at one time. Instead, it reflects the extent to which a person can control attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information / demands.

I have to say that this makes an awful lot of sense to me. I can’t, in the space I have here, go into all the evidence for and against the theory, but here’s one situation which is interesting. The “cocktail party phenomenon” is a well-known method in psychology, whereby people are given two streams of audio, one for each ear, and instructed to listen only to one. At some point, the person’s name is spoken into the unattended stream, and about a third of people pick that up. In a recent take of that classic study, researchers compared the performance of people as a function of their working memory capacity. Only 20% of those with a high capacity heard their name in the unattended channel compared to 65% of low-capacity people. The point being that a critical aspect of good attentional control is the ability to block our irrelevant information.

This ability is one that we already know is worsened by increasing age.

The message from all this, I guess, is that:

  • short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.
  • attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.
  • you need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.
  • many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

And if you want strategies to help you keep more information active, I suggest you look at improving your ability to chunk, condense and label information. If you can reduce a chunk of information to a single label quickly, all you need to do is remember the label. (I explain all this at length in my book The Memory Key, but I’m afraid it needs far too much explanation to go into here).

Anyway, I hope this helps those of you (most of us!) with short-term memory problems.

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 newsletter.

  1. Heitz, R.P., Unsworth, N. & Engle, R.W. 2004. Working memory capacity, attention control, and fluid intelligence. In O. Wilhelm & R,W. Engle (eds.) Handbook of Understanding and Measuring Intelligence. London: Sage Publications.

Action Slips

There is a very common form of forgetfulness that is not really a failure of memory. When we get in our car to drive to place A and find ourselves instead on the road to the more familiar place B, this is not a failure of memory. When we clear the table and find ourselves putting the margarine in the dishwasher or the dirty plate in the fridge, this is not a failure of memory. When we go into a room intending to do one thing and do something else instead, this is not, really, a failure of memory.

These are absentminded errors, and they happen to all of us. They have also been termed action slips, and this term is useful because it points more precisely to the nature of these errors. Let's look at the characteristics of action slips:

  • they usually occur during the performance of tasks that are so highly practised they are largely automatic
  • they usually occur when we are preoccupied or distracted
  • many involve intrusions of other habitual actions that share some characteristics with the intended action
  • such habit intrusions are more likely to occur when:
    • we're departing in some way from our usual routine (for example, you decide to stop adding milk and sugar to your coffee, then finding yourself doing it automatically)
    • the situation has changed, demanding a change in our usual routine (for example, a much-visited shop moves premises, but you keep going to its old location)
    • the situation shares features with a highly familiar situation (for example, you try and open a friend's car with your own car key)

Other types of action slips are:

  • place-losing errors - where you've lost your "place" in an action sequence, and so omit or repeat part of the sequence (for example, because of wheat sensitivities in my family, I make our own bread; accordingly, it is a highly practiced recipe, and I add all the ingredients in a fixed order. If something happens to distract me in the course of it, I may be unsure where I am in the sequence, and risk omitting or repeating an ingredient)
  • blends - where you get confused between two active tasks (for example, you write an email while thinking about the next email you're going to write, and address the current email to the correspondent for the second email)
  • reversals - where you get confused between parts of the same task (for example, you put an empty ice cube tray in the freezer, then turn to the tap to fill it)

You can see from all this that these everyday errors occur in the context of action sequences - that is, sequences of actions that we have practised so often they have become automatic. Dressing, undressing, washing, making coffee or tea, even making quite complicated recipes - these are all common examples of action sequences.

You can see why action slip is therefore a good name for these types of error.

Is there anything we can do to minimize action slips? Well, the standard advice is to pay attention to what you're doing, but of course the whole point of action sequences is that they free our mind from needing to pay attention, so this is not a strategy I particularly recommend. However, if there are some action slips that you are particularly prone to, you might want to try this.

The most useful thing you can do is simply be aware of the circumstances that set you up for such errors. Then you can either:

  • make a sterling effort to pay attention when it's important to you (for example, both my partner and I are careful when we are driving and need to depart from familiar routes, to remind ourselves - or each other - of our destination at key points), or
  • use an object to signal that you have done something, or remind you where you are in a sequence (to take the recipe example again, you could move used ingredients to a particular part of the kitchen bench), or
  • decide it's not important!

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 newsletter.

  1. Harris, J.E. & Morris, P.E. (eds.) 1984. Everyday memory, actions and absent-mindedness. Academic Press.
  2. Reason, J.T. & Mysielska, K. 1982. Absent-minded? The psychology of mental lapses and everyday errors. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.


Doing more than one task at a time requires us to switch our attention rapidly between the tasks.

This is easier if the tasks don't need much attention.

Although we think we're saving time, time is lost when switching between tasks; these time costs increase for complex or unfamiliar tasks.

Both alcohol and aging affect our ability to switch attention rapidly.

A very common situation today, which is probably responsible for a great deal of modern anxiety about failing memory, is that where we're required to “multitask”, that trendy modern word for trying to do more than one thing at a time. It is a situation for which both the normal consequences of aging and low working memory capacity has serious implications.

There’s an old insult along the lines of “he can’t walk and chew gum”. The insult is a tacit acknowledgment that doing two things at the same time can put a strain on mental resources, and also recognizes (this is the insult part!) that well-practiced activities do not place as much demand on our cognitive resources. We can, indeed, do more than one task at a time, as long as only one of the tasks requires our attention. It is attention that can’t be split.

You may feel that you can, in fact, do two tasks requiring attention simultaneously. For example, talking on a cellphone and driving!

Not true.

What you are in fact doing, is switching your attention rapidly between the two tasks, and you are doing it at some cost.

How big a cost depends on a number of factors. If you are driving a familiar route, with no unexpected events (such as the car in front of you braking hard, or a dog running out on the road), you may not notice the deterioration in your performance. It also helps if the conversation you are having is routine, with little emotional engagement. But if the conversation is stressful, or provokes strong emotion, or requires you to think … well, any of these factors will impact on your ability to drive.

The ability to switch attention between tasks is regulated by a function called prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain appears to be particularly affected by aging, and also by alcohol. Thus, talking on a cellphone while driving drunk is a recipe for disaster! Nor do you have to actually be under the influence to be affected in this way by alcohol; impaired executive control is characteristic of alcoholics.

More commonly, we get older, and as we get older we become less able to switch attention fast.

The ability to switch attention is also related to working memory capacity.

But multitasking is not only a problem for older adults, or those with a low working memory capacity. A study [1] using young adults found that for all types of tasks, time was lost when switching between tasks, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

Part of the problem in switching attention is that we have to change “rules”. Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which may not sound much, but can mean the difference between life and death in some situations (such as driving a car), and which even in less dramatic circumstances, adds appreciably to the time it takes to do tasks, if you are switching back and forth repeatedly.

To take an example close to home, people required to write a report while repeatedly checking their email took half again as long to finish the report compared to those who didn't switch between tasks!

In other words, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it may not actually BE more efficient. It may in fact take more time in the end, and the tasks may of course be performed more poorly. And then there is the stress; switching between tasks places demands on your mental resources, and that is stressful. (And not only are we poorer at such task-switching as we age, we also tend to be less able to handle stress).

There is another aspect to multitasking that deserves mention. It has been speculated that rapid switching between tasks may impede long-term memory encoding. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is certainly plausible.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the main thing is to be aware of the problems. Accept that multitasking is not a particularly desirably situation; that it costs you time and quality of performance; that your ability to multitask will be impeded by fatigue, alcohol, stress, emotion, distraction (e.g., don’t add to your problems by having music on as well); that your ability will also be impaired by age. Understand that multitasking involves switching attention between tasks, not simultaneous performance; and that it will therefore be successful to the extent that the tasks are familiar and well-practised.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 newsletter.

  1. Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E. & Evans, J.E. 2001. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, 27 (4), 763-797.

Everyday memory problems

Frequent failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible can generally be attributed to physical, environmental, and strategic reasons.

Physical reasons encompass health problems, lack of sleep, and stress.

Environmental reasons mainly concern how distracted you are.

Strategic reasons concern a failure to adopt effective memory strategies as situations and abilities change.

I was recently asked for advice in the case of increased “brain blocks” — failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible. This question is, I suspect, of interest to many of my readers, so I thought I would answer it here.

There are many possible causes for an increase in this type of memory failure. These causes fall into three main categories: physical, environmental, and strategic. Let’s deal with the physical first.

Physical reasons for memory failure

Before looking at applying new strategies or making changes to your environment, you should first rule out the possibility that your memory difficulties are caused by health problems. To do this, you should consider whether memory failure is your sole symptom. If it is (and I have to say, I suspect this will rarely be true), then, fine, go straight to considering your environment and your habits. However, if you have other symptoms, however unrelated, then consider the possibility that your mental problems are part and parcel of some underlying physical dysfunction.

It may be something as simple as lack of sleep. In fact, considering how widespread the modern trend of not getting enough sleep is, I’d say look at that first. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep in ensuring your brain is firing on all cylinders.

After sleep, I suggest you look at the other modern disease: allergies / sensitivities of various kinds. (I am assuming you don’t have a major health problem — presumably you would already be aware of this). If you suffer from these, you will have a raft of symptoms, possibly minor, but startling in their array if you stop and think about them.

For example, in my own case, I first considered food sensitivities because of serious fatigue. However, once I found the major offender (wheat), and realized that, indeed, food sensitivity was to blame, I listed all the various things “wrong” with me — things I was used to, that I just thought were how I was, such as achy joints. I filled a page with such ailments! (And, yes, to my complete astonishment, after having achy joints most of my life, I no longer get them now that I know the offending foods). My point is that if you’re suffering from food or chemical sensitivities, you will almost certainly suffer from multiple symptoms.

And, of course, the final modern disease is that old bugbear, stress.

I think it’s fair to say that adequate sleep, adequate exercise, and appropriate diet will ameliorate most of the “minor” physical ailments that impede memory (I hasten to add that I’m using “minor” only to distinguish such complaints from major disorders that require medical intervention).

I’m not saying that ensuring you eat right, sleep well, and exercise sufficiently, is easy! But don’t expect these things not to affect you, particularly as you age (and we’re not talking serious age, here; even in your thirties, you can’t get away with the complete disregard you may have shown in your twenties).

So much for physical causes. What about the environment?

Environmental reasons for memory failure

If you’re madly busy, if you’re having to keep many different things in mind, then you must expect this to take its toll on your mental resources, especially as you age. Don’t compare yourself to others — we are all different, and all have different capacities. Some people thrive on situations that would send another person to a hospital bed. You know yourself if you feel too stretched, if you’re juggling too many things, have too many responsibilities or too many people looking to you ... Don’t go by what you think you ought to be able to manage, go by what you can manage.

Strategic reasons for memory failure

And then there’s strategies. What you do to manage your life, your tasks, your memory needs. Most of us developed strategies for dealing with these matters early in life, when our mental and physical abilities were at their peak, when we had fewer complications in our lives. When these strategies begin to fail, most of us blame ourselves — that there is something “wrong” with us. In most cases, however, the fault is simply that the strategies were not particularly good ones. We got away with using them because we did not, at that point in our lives, require particularly effective strategies. Now we do. Accept that, and move on.

What to do

So, my advice to those of you suffering from this type of forgetfulness is to first consider whether your health is compromised or your capacities too stretched. Secondly (and whether or not these conditions are true), look for strategies that will relieve some of the burdens on your memory. Remember that, in today’s world, most of us put far more demands on our memory than has been the case at any previous point in human history. So don’t be afraid to use external aids to memory. Design your life, and build routines, that minimize the demands on your memory as best you can. And never take for granted that you will remember anything that you have made no deliberate attempt to remember.

You can find more specific advice for specific memory problems at:

Action Slips

Short-Term Memory Problems

Word-finding problems

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences

Multitasking problems

Forgetting a skill or procedure

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

Working memory

Working memory is one of the most important concepts in understanding and improving your memory.

Your working memory capacity is a critical factor in determining your ability to :

  • take good notes,
  • read efficiently,
  • understand complex issues,
  • reason.

Indeed it may be that it is your working memory capacity that best ‘measures’ your intelligence.

Short-term vs long-term memory

Working memory is a relatively recent term, a refinement of an older concept - that of short-term memory. Short-term memory was called thus to distinguish it from "long-term memory" - your memory store.

One important difference between the idea of short-term memory and working memory, is that short-term memory was conceived of as a thing. Different from long-term memory (variously analogized as a library, a filing system, a computer) chiefly in the duration of the records it held. But working memory, as its name suggests, is now conceived more as a process than a thing. A state of mind. A pattern of activation.

Working memory contains the information of which you are immediately aware.

To put information into our memory store, it must ... be worked on - i.e., be held in working memory. To get information out of the memory store - to “remember” something - it must again be in an active state - be in working memory. How can we know what we remember if we're not conscious of it?

However, you can only keep something "active" for a very short time without your conscious attention. It is this which so limits working memory capacity.

The magic number seven

Probably the most widely known fact about working memory is that it can only hold around seven chunks of information (between 5 and 9). However, this tells us little about the limits of working memory because the size of a chunk is indeterminate.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 are seven different chunks - if you remember each digit separately (as you would, for example, if you were not familiar with the digits - as a young child isn't). But for those of us who are only too well-versed in our numbers, 1 through to 7 could be a single chunk.

Recent research suggests however, that it is not so much the number of chunks that is important. What may be important may be how long it takes you to say the words (information is usually held in working memory in the form of an acoustic - sound-based - code). It appears that you can only hold in working memory what you can say in 1.5 — 2 seconds. Slow speakers are therefore penalized.

Your working memory capacity

What we term "working memory" contains several functions, including the "central executive" which coordinates and manages the various tasks needed. The extent to which working memory is domain-specific (different "working memories", if you like, for different sensory and cognitive systems, such as language, spatial memory, number) is still very much debated. However, at a practical level, we may think of working memory as containing several different components, for which you have different "capacities". Thus, your capacity for numbers may well be quite different from your capacity for words, and both from your capacity for visual images.

External memory aids

What are external memory aids?

External memory aids include such strategies as:

  • taking notes
  • making shopping lists
  • entering appointments in a diary or on a calendar
  • writing a memo to yourself
  • writing on the back of your hand
  • taking photographs
  • using clocks, oven timers, alarms on watches, etc
  • putting objects in a conspicuous place
  • putting a knot in your handkerchief
  • asking someone to help you remember

Making lists

Making lists or writing reminder notes to yourself, is one of the most widespread external memory aids. It seems that list-making is primarily helpful as a way of organizing (encoding) information, rather than its more obvious role in retrieving. More often than not, people do not actually use the list or note to ‘remember’. The act of making it is sufficient to aid later recall.

However, there are situations where list-making appears appropriate but is not in fact the best strategy. For example, one study found that waitresses who went from table to table to take drink orders were much better at remembering the orders if they visualized the drinks in particular locations rather than when they wrote the orders down1. It is perhaps the time pressure in that kind of situation that makes an internal strategy more effective than an external one.

When to use mental strategies

  • when you can’t rely on external prompts (e.g., acting in a play)
  • when external prompts are difficult to prepare (e.g., because you lack writing materials) or hard to use (you have OOS in your writing hand)
  • when you didn’t expect to need to recall something, and have nothing prepared
  • when using external aids interferes with other behavior (understanding what’s going on; taking orders; etc)
  • when carrying external aids would be undesirable or inconvenient (e.g., when driving)
  • when the interval between learning and recall is very short (as when you need to remember a phone number only long enough to dial it)

When to use external memory aids

  • when a number of interfering activities occur between encoding and recall (e.g., having to remember to buy groceries after work)
  • when there is a long time between encoding and recall (e.g., needing to make a doctor’s appointment two months in the future)
  • when internal aids are not trusted to be sufficiently reliable (as when precise details need to be remembered; or strict timing — when to check a cake in the oven)
  • when information is difficult, and doesn’t cohere easily (e.g., remembering lectures)
  • when there is insufficient time to properly encode information
  • when memory load is to be avoided (as when you are attending to more than one activity)

How effective are external memory aids?

In general, external aids are regarded as easier to use, more accurate, and more dependable, than mental strategies. However, with the exception of note-taking, there has been little research into the effectiveness of external memory aids. The most that can be said is that, by and large, people believe they can be effective (with the emphasis, perhaps, on ‘can’).

One problem with external aids is that most of them are highly specific in their use. Their effective use also requires good habits. It’s no good remembering to make a note in your diary if you don’t remember to look in it.

  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Fourrier, J. 1986. External and internal memory aids: when and how often do we use them? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 267-280.
  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Newsome, G.L. III. 1992. External memory aids: effects and effectiveness. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  1. Bennett, H.L. 1983. Remembering drinks orders: The memory skills of cocktail waitresses. Human Learning, 2, 157-169.
Syndicate content