Attention is one of the most basic of all the factors in improving your memory. Clearly, if you don’t even notice something you can hardly expect to recall it later. And, let’s face it, we all have a tendency to take things for granted. We cruise through life with the lights half on, not really taking much notice of anything. Then we moan that we can’t remember this and that.
You think I’m exaggerating? Okay, think of a time you recall in great detail, an accident for example, or a time you achieved something special, or some major turning point in your life. You remember it in great detail, right? Guess why? Yep, because you were paying attention!
Shocked into paying attention
You step off a kerb without thinking (there we go again, paying no attention!), then nearly get clipped by a bus or a car. Your attention is heightened for a few moments and everything suddenly comes into sharp focus. You suddenly see everything, you hear the slightest sounds, you judge the movements you make to get back to a place of safety with delicacy and precision (and without consciously ‘thinking’).
You’re suddenly acting very purposefully, with the help of the automatic reflexes built into your system, the reflexes developed specifically to keep you safe. And when you tell someone about it later, or just think about it when you have a quiet moment, you’re amazed at the details you can see and hear in your mind. It’s as though everything stepped down a gear, the whole world suddenly started to move in slow motion, and only you were moving at superhuman speed.
Oh, and by the way, a rather important point … you didn’t have to make any effort to remember a thing!
What actually happened was that your senses were suddenly and instantly switched on, you became fully aware, and in the blinding glare of your full, one hundred percent attention, the relative speed of the whole rest of the world appeared to slow down in comparison. This particular example is a negative one in a way, in that it involves being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a state of complete awareness because of an imminent danger.
There are nicer ways to experience this effect, of course. You’ve stopped at the summit after an hour’s hard hill walking and you stand and stare at the view. The vista spreads before you, almost silent, panoramic, beautiful, and you feel the magnificence of the whole world around you. You gasp at the wonder of it all and try to take it in all at once, and you wonder, breathlessly, why the rest of your life can’t be this clear, this sharp, this wonderful.
been dragged into full awareness?
Just because they’re ‘ordinary’ and nothing special seems to be happening, we almost literally don’t even notice them slipping by. Then suddenly it’s Christmas or New Year and we’re wondering where the last twelve months have gone! Or suddenly you’re forty and you can hardly remember where the last ten years went!
We feel like time is speeding up as we get older, but maybe we’re just paying less attention to things and taking them more for granted. The result, of course, is that we don’t even notice them. And, along the way, we start to experience more memory difficulties. Coincidence?
I remember reading some research that suggests a reason for this ‘speeding up of time as we get older’ phenomenon. As far as I can recall, it was tied in very much with how much attention we give to events. And the reason this changes so much in later years is that when we are younger, there are lots more new experiences, or ‘firsts’ (first job, first date, first award, first real relationship, first holiday abroad, first child, etc). Because each new experience is such a novelty, we tend to notice every detail and give it our full attention. And the more things we notice (the more details that we pay attention to), the stronger and more lasting is the memory that is formed.
This happens on a smaller scale too. When we go on holiday, the first day or two is spent getting to know the hotel, the surrounding area, the beaches, the night life, the locals, the language … absolutely everything. And those couple of days seem to stretch on and on and on and we get the feeling that this is going to be such a great holiday.
Then suddenly, it seems, we’re packing our cases to leave for home and we’re wondering where the fortnight has gone. What happened was we got to know the place and started to take everything for granted, with the result that time seemed to speed up. Not the result you want on a holiday! But it’s what happens when we’re not paying attention!
The key to real memory improvement
If you want to see some real memory improvement you need to start paying more attention. To everything! Each and every moment of your day is here one time only, then it’s gone. No second chances, no second bites of the cherry. Time will come when you look back and yearn for a few more of those ‘ordinary’ days, the ones you didn’t even notice slipping by. They were special too … you just weren’t paying attention.
Look for the special moments in your day. Start to notice each and every little thing. Be like a little kid, fascinated by every new experience. A single day can seem like a lifetime to a five-year old. Counting down the days to Christmas or a birthday can seem interminable. And why? Because kids get totally lost in the moment! They’re living each and every day to the full. And maybe that’s why, even thirty, or forty, or fifty years later, those ‘kids’ can still remember certain things that happened to them when they were five-years old, with crystal clarity.
In fact, didn’t someone once say something to the effect, “Be like little children and you can enter the kingdom of Heaven”? Maybe the Heaven he was referring to was the here and now, if we would only pay attention and see it for what it really is.
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