Working Smarter

The Hidden Key to Attention: Working Memory

Posted by Joe Robinson

Brain and working memory

I have always been fascinated by prodigies, who by the age of 10 can play complex classical or jazz music as well as the pros. What switch is turned on in their minds that isn’t in the rest of our brains? We are starting to get some answers from researchers working with these gifted children.

It had been assumed that off-the-chart IQs helped prodigies reach their heights, but studies show that a high IQ isn’t mandatory. In a study done by Joanne Ruthsatz and Jourdan Urbach, eight music, math, and art whizzes were found to have IQs ranging from 108 to 147. Yet there was something her subjects had that very few others do, a finding that seems to go to the heart of the mystery. Every child in the study scored higher than the 99th percentile of their peers in one area: working memory. Six of the eight kids measured in the 99.9th percentile.


You may be more familiar with working memory's other handle--short-term memory. And it's very short. We can only hang on to three or four thought chunks for only a few seconds. When an interruption or distraction intrudes, it blows up the momentary grasp of thoughts. We use working memory to do just about anything in our day, so having strategies to protect it and harness it is essential.

The prodigies all have an incredible ability to “store and sort information,” to pay exceptional attention to detail within the moment, a time when thoughts are normally tenuous. They seem to be able to hold notes in memory extremely skillfully while processing incoming data.

They have the ability to maintain complete attention, and with that laser concentration, burn the information into their brain neurons. They may also have exceptional long-term memory as well. One of the prodigies memorized more than 100 pages of classical music before the age of 4.

Increasing your attention skills may not wind up in a gig at Carnegie Hall, but it is something that can dramatically improve your working memory, mood, satisfaction, and resistance to distractions. Building attention is critical to counter constant digital bombardment and interruptions that undermine impulse control and attention spans.


Attention is a very limited resource, constrained by how much you can attend to at one time and how long you can stay locked on it. Researchers say we can only bring full attention to a task for 90 minutes to two hours, after which we have to get off task to allow the brain to refresh. 

“When you increase the metabolism of the brain, it comes with byproducts that need to be cleared out and cleaned,” Northwestern University’s Borna Bonakdarpour told the Washington Post. He recommends a break of 20 or 30 minutes after two hours of focus.

Getting the most out of your working memory requires an overall boost to your focusing skills. Here are five ways to do that in the face of constant distraction.

1. Use more top-down attention. Utilize the selection equipment you are equipped with to attend fully to things in your world. When you choose what you pay attention to, known as top-down attention, you focus the lens and concentration comes with it. On the other hand, you want to manage the "bottom-up" attention brigade of email, notifications,  and various e-noisemakers that divert you from the high brain to the impulsive low road of the amygdala and rote regions like the hippocampus.

2. Block out focus zones on your calendar every day. The white space in your calendar is gold when it comes to opportunities to hone your attention equipment. Block out times when you have the most alertness to do your high concentration work and turn them into no-interruption zones. The more you can set the terms of engagement with devices and interruptions for unadulterated concentration, the more you will be able to dial in full attention on a regular basis.  

3. Manage emotions and the thoughts that trigger them. Mind-wandering and emotional sidetracks take you far from the task in front of you, sending your thoughts back and forward in time to relive or project yourself somewhere else. Stress constricts your brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, since a part of your brain thinks you are facing a life-or-death threat. It will keep you detouring to whatever the problem is, making it hard to keep the thought chunks of working memory together. Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when your mind wanders off.

4. Take breaks. Stepping back from cognitive strain is one of the best ways to refresh the mental screen. You can only stay on task for up to two hours before attention wanders, wanes, and sputters. Giving the brain a break every couple of hours by doing something the opposite of mental straining, such as stretching or walking or changing up the mood by listening to music, allows the thinking gear to recover and reboot.

5. Do practices that increase attention. Focus zones and managing devices and intrusions are essential to keep the bombardment of working memory at bay, but they are merely shutting out the noise. Increasing the ability to pay attention and retain information takes a different approach, one more akin to gym workouts for the brain. No workout clothes needed. No transit. All you have to do is pump focus through practices that build, instead of muscle memory, memory muscle. You can do that through techniques that help your neurons to hold on to what you are attending to.

The good news is that you don’t have to memorize Mozart to improve your attention quotient. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s the lack of complexity and, instead, focus on a simple target with repetition that builds the part of your cortex where executive attention lives. The act of sustained concentration on a target trains the mind to focus and resist distraction.

The focusing activity can be as basic as counting—backwards, that is—for two minutes. That’s not something you do every day, so you have to pay more attention. Take the target up to 20 minutes with meditation, and you have one of the best ways to increase attention. Studies show meditation increases the actual size of the attention center in your brain. Summon up the mental discipline to focus on a target on a regular basis, and you can dramatically grow your attention skills and read all the way to the end of stories. Are you still with me?

Tags: attention, memory

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