Improve your mind’s search engine

17 October, 2016

Boost your working memory to beat distractions and deepen focus

From historic icons like inventor Nikola Tesla and philosopher Swami Vivekananda, to popular television characters like scientist Sheldon Cooper and FBI agent Spender Reid—some of the most brilliant minds are said to possess an eidetic memory (most of us know this as photographic memory). Whether the geniuses are real or fictional, our fascination is the same. Being able to instantly recall every event in your life, or every sentence you’ve ever read, in vivid and precise detail—who wouldn’t want such an ability?

Science isn’t quite sure to what extent eidetic memory actually exists. If you think about it, though, your own memory is in itself quite astounding. All of us perform memory miracles on a daily basis—albeit on a much smaller scale than television heroes. Consider this: Every waking moment, we are bombarded with hundreds of pieces of information, which need to be processed rapidly, efficiently, constantly. Like a relentless supercomputer, your brain must take in the information, juggle it around, make sense of it, assemble it, and load it up in the cognitive pipeline—whether you’re solving a problem, making a decision, assessing a situation, or simply having a conversation.

This is where ‘working memory’ comes in. Think of your working memory as a mental sticky note or your mind’s “search engine”, a short-term storage locker that holds thoughts and ideas while you’re doing something else at the same time. When you need a piece of information, you can simply pull it out from here. For instance, if you need to answer a question impromptu, your working memory allows you to prepare what you want to say next—while you’re still speaking. When you’re reading a book, it allows you to remember information you read earlier and make connections with what you read later. It also plays a key role in maintaining focus. Without it, we would be endlessly distracted by our own wayward thoughts or what’s happening around us. It is the skill of paying attention that allows us to deeply immerse ourselves in a task for hours on end—filtering out the distractions around us.

So, drawing from this, my message this week is on the power of working memory and how you can boost it. As leaders, given that you get bombarded with so many things, you need to make sure that you are attentive, maintain focus and don’t get distracted. Improving your working memory will help you become more productive.

In their book, The Working Memory Advantage: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster, authors Tracy Packiam Alloway and Ross Alloway highlight the pivotal role played by working memory in all human achievement:

‘The working memory advantage in large part made civilization possible. It is the ultimate evolutionary tool that has allowed us to make everything from a bone flute to a Stradivarius violin, from the Lion Man to Michelangelo’s David, from a bone “computer” to Google.’

In today’s frenetic times, however, our working memories are being taxed more than ever before. The sheer volume of information that comes our way on a daily basis makes processing difficult, with our brains struggling to figure out what’s important and worth keeping—and what’s irrelevant and can be discarded. Attention, too, is an ever-depleting resource, with few people able to practice and maintain the kind of deep focus I mentioned above. What’s more, stress also takes a toll on working memory, reducing the amount of space available for short-time storage. This means if you’re worried, your ability to comprehend, reason and respond suffers—which in turn makes you even more anxious! It’s a vicious cycle. No wonder stress is a growing concern across the globe; our brains don’t seem fully equipped to deal with the environment we have created for ourselves.

One way to deal with this problem is to eliminate the distractions themselves: switch off phone notifications, get off social media, restrict yourself to select news sources, and so on. However, this isn’t realistic. Plus, you may actually want to surround yourself with multiple sources of knowledge and entertainment. Which means you need to better manage and overcome these distractions. Thus, the other solution is to boost your cognitive ability, making it faster and sharper.

Once upon a time, it was thought that working memory was a fixed genetic inheritance, that we had no way of changing our natural ability. We now know this isn’t true: studies show that, like any other muscle, our memory can be strengthened and enhanced.

Here are four suggestions that you could give a try:

1. Train your brain

Smartphones are truly a mixed bag: while being a source of endless distractions, they also give you instant access to tools that could help strengthen your working memory. Plenty of apps offer brain training games—and a lot of them have free trials, so you can try a range before settling on one. Popular options include Lumosity, Fit Brains Trainer, Cognito, Peak and Elevate. The scientific jury is still out on the exact benefits of these brain training tools, but the results seem to be promising.

For those who prefer a research-backed alternative, there’s the ‘dual n-back game’. Think of this as the mental equivalent of a brutal, high-intensity gym workout. This game demands your complete concentration; waver for a second, and you’re out. In Think Better on Your Feet: How to Improve Your Working Memory, Brett and Kate McKay explain the benefits—and the catch:

‘You have to keep track of multiple pieces of information while applying it at the same time, and it gets harder and harder as you get better at it…. The effort pays off though: research suggests that the dual n-back game definitely increases working memory capacity. But here’s the catch: the improvements are transient and short lasting. While research participants were able to improve their working memory after 12-week programs of dual n-back training, once they stopped, the gains quickly went away. So working memory is just like your physical muscles in this way too: if you don’t use it, you lose it.’

This means that your brain workout needs to become a regular part of the day, just like exercising your body.

2. Slow down

Not for nothing is meditation such a vital practice for successful people across the world, from thinkers and philosophers to business moguls and sports icons. Apart from a host of other benefits (including decreased depression, improved immunity, a healthier heart, lower blood pressure), studies are now proving that meditation can actually change your brain. Just eight days of practicing mindfulness meditation can significantly boost your working memory. This is something that is do-able even for those of you who are very busy and don’t have much free time—eight minutes a day is all it could take to reap the rewards. Mindfulness also combats stress, which further strengthens your working memory.

Getting enough rest is another easy way to improve your cognitive capacity. Research has found that people who get a full eight hours of sleep are 58% better at working memory tasks than those who get less. In 9 Smart Ways to Improve Your Memory, the author explains how:

‘Experts agree that if you do only one thing to improve your memory, getting more sleep should be it. “Sleep is key time for your brain to solidify the connections between neurons,” says Barnard….Rule of thumb: Get seven to nine hours of sleep total each day. And, yes, naps count.’

3. Speed up

Resting is great for your working memory—and so is exercise. While science is still divided on which active pursuits are most beneficial, the value of exercise is indisputable. Raising your heart rate gets your blood flowing and lights up your brain and expands the prefrontal cortex (the seat of your working memory). Take your pick from cardiovascular activities like running and swimming, or resistance training programs such as weightlifting. You’ll also kill two birds with one stone, since working out is great for your brain and body.

The more adventurous among you could also try out MovNat, described by memory experts, Tracy Packiam Alloway and Ross Alloway, as ‘the original workout; the workout our prehistoric ancestors had to do every day in order to survive – jumping, running, climbing, throwing, crawling and balancing in a random, natural environment.’

4. Think out of the box

Researchers at the University of Graz have found a link between creativity and memory. Thinking of creative uses for everyday objects fires us parts of the brain that are vital for working memory. Pick a household object and come up with unusual uses for it!

Doodling is another surprising way to strengthen your working memory. A study found that people who doodle while listening can better recall the information afterwards. Experts believe that this helps to keep the brain minimally stimulated, so that our minds don’t wander away completely. Challenging your brain with fresh ideas can also enable your working memory to perform better. Learn a new language, explore a new subject, or grapple with a new game (think crosswords or Sudoku)—this is a simple and enjoyable way to fire up your neurons.

Strengthening your working memory helps you process and prioritise information better, as well as cultivate deeper focus. Plus, some experts suggest that it could actually make you a better problem solver and even smarter! So, why not give some of these suggestions a try. I look forward to hearing about your experiences.


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