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Strategy 2 - Turn off auto-pilot
 

Cartoon characterrs - pilots talking to each other in the cockpitYou are lying in bed and trying to remember whether you switched the heating off, or walking to the bus wondering did you unplug the hair straightener or turn off the grill after you made toast. We’ve all been there. Many of us react by pointing the finger of blame at our memory.

The truth may lie elsewhere. It is possible you never flicked your attention on while turning that heating switch off; without this focus on your own action, the memory is not etched in your brain, so there is nothing to remember. You will just have to go check the heating, paying attention to the task this time.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat such absent-mindedness and we could all benefit from knowing some of them. One technique is to stay in the moment, which is to focus on what you are doing while you are doing it. Pilots do this. They use self-talk, check lists and talk through their actions with their co-pilot to keep them in the moment, and stop them turning their attention off – not a good idea when flying an aircraft at 35,000 feet.

It is worth considering what can blur your attentiveness. You can be led down the path of absentmindedness by stress, medication and alcohol. In addition to facing the same everyday stressors as everyone else people with MS have to deal with the uncertainty and challenges that the condition itself can cause.

Absentmindedness leaves you more exposed to boredom and low mood, so it is certainly a problem worth wrestling. One way is to learn to focus on a task at hand or to make a point of ‘switching on’ your attention. Mindfulness is when you call attention and focus to the present moment by focusing on breath, body sensation or something in the here and now; it’s rooted in Buddhist philosophy but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice it. It has been used successfully by people to manage depression but is also used by healthy people. Why not give it a go?

Another thing that you can practice is sustained attention, which means keeping your concentration over a long time period. Just like physical fitness, you need to exercise your focusing skills to keep them in ship-shape, and you’ll get better at keeping your attention switched on for longer the more you practice it.

Attention first – then add meaning

The trick of memory is to make things meaningful. But for this you need to jump the first hurdle – paying attention. At a party, you join a group and get introduced to three people you’ve never met before. You say a brief hello, half listen to their name and try follow the group’s conversation, as well as think of what you’d like to say, while also wondering whether you’ve got food caught between your teeth. Within a few minutes, you are left alone with one of the guests and you can’t remember their name or much else about them. This is an everyday sort of experience.

However, there are fun ways to move up a grade and become an A student at name recall. One clever technique is to behave as if you are interested in the person’s name first time around; just as we feel happy when we smile, if we act fascinated by a name we become a little fascinated by it. Think of why it is of interest. We can also add rhyming add-ons to the name to pin on more meaning, perhaps Super Susan or Perfect Pete. We can direct our attention better by also repeating the name out loud after hearing it, or asking them to spell the name. Recall the name to yourself after a few minutes; nothing polishes a memory like repeated use.

Our brains cannot resist sparkly things, unusual colour patterns, odd shapes and sudden movements. It is something advertisers use to their advantage. Take a leaf out of their book to focus your attention; try to add colourful context to something you want to file to memory. It is important not to rush; our brain will need at least 10 seconds to fully soak up even a new name. If you are having trouble remembering something, put your attention into neutral gear and try to create images of that person or location. This is a good strategy because the autobiographical slice of memory is stacked full of imagery which should jog your memory and help you recall that bit of information you’re searching for. And verbalise if you cannot remember, as this can unclog blockages. The more senses you can activate the better your chance of remembering.

Finally, if you feel you are suffering from absent-mindedness, one useful remedy is to develop a routine in the way you do certain things. So always place your glasses in the one spot beside your bed, or carry out the late-night locking up duties in the same order.

Tuning out the clutter

From a jungle of sensations sometimes we want to pick out a single leaf. It is essential that we can tune out details as we simply can’t process all of the information our senses take in; consider that neuroscientists reckon each eye receives 100 megabits of information flow every second. This compares to the fastest broadband connection available. Our brain must therefore label what is important and filter out the stuff that doesn’t matter. And so we give greater weight to what is noteworthy, perhaps a sudden movement, an unusual colour pattern or a strange shape. This is our brain’s way of working: it doesn’t read through all of our previous experiences but instead uses a quick rule of thumb approach. If we think of perception as a sort of click of the camera, we can compare committing that experience to memory as developing film for an old-style camera. In the dark room of our mind, previous experiences can then colour meaning and influence what we commit to memory.

We must focus somewhere. And strictly speaking multi-tasking is a myth, at least to our brain. Neuroscientists say that when we try to do two tasks at the same time, like talking to someone while texting a friend, we might think that we are multitasking, but our brain isn’t splitting its beam between the two tasks. Instead it is rapidly switching back and forth, to texting, then to our friend, then back again. It’s no wonder we don’t quite “hear” everything said. But you can get a better grip on your attention. While listening to a radio talk show, try turning your attention on and off every minute. Listen intently, drift off, then concentrate on what’s being said again. Carry on like this for five to ten minutes. If you practice this technique each day, you’ll notice how much the power of your attention can vary. Gradually, your skills at recognising the difference will sharpen and you will tighten your control over your attention. Attention can be trained to behave itself and research suggests that physical exercise also helps.

Back to Super Strategies

 
 
Hello Brain For more info on brain health visit Hello Brain
 

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