Neuroplasticity, attention bias and the role of stress in memory performance.

Ever heard the saying ‘Goldfish memory’? Sometimes we use it to refer to friends and loved ones who seem to forget almost everything they hear. You’ll probably forget that you read this later today.

Many things in our environment (the sound of someone kicking a football is always a winner for me) can catch our attention successfully. However, people often want the ability to focus more, but feel like they're losing their ability to concentrate on a particular task for long periods of time.  And yes, a vast number of self-help books out there will give you plenty of ideas on how to cope with the problem; but—you guessed it—who has the attention to read one of those!

Problems happen when we forget important things because our attention isn’t focused on it. When we forget things we might worry about them. Here’s where worry, stress and anxiety really cause us problems with attention and memory. Lets imagine I‘m worrying about remembering my wedding anniversary again. In order to remember and stop worrying I need to find a way to get a longer attention span. Paying attention, for long periods of time, is all about endurance skills. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention training.

Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organisation over time to assimilate new experiences. It involves physical changes based on particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. Your brain is like a muscle; you need to make sure you take care of it and exercise it regularly. Things like saving info in our diaries, notepads etc may be handy tricks, but they don't take neuroplasticity into account. However, you only have a finite amount of attention to spend. That practical stuff is handy for making the best use of your limited attention span, but it's not going to improve your attention load. In other words, it's not going to stop your brain from being easily distracted, especially if you start worrying. I read here [1,2] that there are two attentional control systems: a voluntary system (i.e. influenced by our own goals) and an involuntary system (i.e. influenced by stimuli in our environment). Nevertheless, our ability to control our attention has definite capacity limits, in that we often cannot ignore important stimuli in our environment (e.g. a loud ambulance siren) although we try so hard to focus on that boring piece of work we need to submit to our manager by noon.

Interestingly, this ability to control attention seems to be even more impaired in worry-prone individuals. This is because the process of worrying consumes brain resources required to control our attention. Consequently, when we start worrying we might be even less able to sustain focus on our original task (what piece of work again?) and consequently, get easily distracted by other, non-related thoughts or tasks (e.g. could I squeeze in a pint on my way back home?). Moreover, such deficits might be particularly relevant to worry-prone individuals, since for instance prolonged attention to potentially negative future events (e.g. what if...?) might encourage similar forms of thought, thus perpetuating worry [1,2].

So how do you train to focus? Attention training [3] is a specific treatment technique showing significant beneficial effects on worry/anxiety and depression when practiced in its own right or in the context of a full treatment course. In practising such techniques the aim is to follow the attention instructions irrespective of what may or may not be going through your mind. Inner thoughts, feelings or emotions, should not be avoided or suppressed but allowed to “be there” if they occur as you practice; focusing your attention as instructed is your priority and nothing else (e.g. in your mind) should require a response.

Stress Free has meditation exercises that promote clam attention training. Taking away worry and stress really does help us sustain attention and therefore improve the chances of remembering things. Lately, I've been using attention training with great success, although regular and consistent practice has been necessary. The effects seem to develop more with time as I practice twice a day for 4 weeks now. I now find it a lot easier to concentrate at work and my friends are also amused by my renewed ability to recall hugely embarrassing incidents from our school years. In short, managing worry helps improve your attentions span. Make use of the relaxation and meditation exercises in Stress Free and watch your memory improve.

References :

1.     {C}Stefanopoulou E. et al (2104). Are Attentional Control Resources Reduced by Worry in Generalized Anxiety Disorder? J Abnorm Psychol. 123(2): 330–335.

2.     {C}Hayes S. et al (2008). Restriction of working memory capacity during worry. J Abnorm Psychol. 117:712–717

3.     {C}