Feeling Distracted? It could be affecting your short term memory.

iStock_000009795356Small Guilty as charged. Everyday I seem to struggle with being able to complete my daily tasks, as there is a constant stream of distractions vying for my attention. It’s all too easy to get off track and find that at the end of the day half the things you wanted to do aren’t done simply because of all the interruptions and distractions that got in our way.

It’s very easy to blame “being busy” and having to “multi task” to cope with all of our demands put on us in our daily lives.

Knowing that I am easily distracted by the email in box, unnecessary phone calls, children requiring pick ups, the dog, whatever, hasn’t helped and I get very frustrated with my seemingly increasing inability to ignore all of these.

The fact is that as we get older our ability to cope with these distractions diminishes. It’s not so much that we can’t focus; it’s more that all the other “stuff” gets in the way. The result can be diminished short-term memory. And it’s infuriating!

So, if this is a natural ageing process. What can we do to try and remedy the problem?

The brain has it’s own mechanism.

Some very clever people at the Kavli Institute in Norway have discovered that the brain actually has it’s own mechanism to allow us to filter out those distracting thoughts. Hooray.

Back to the brain and it’s all in that highly specialised area called the hippocampus, which deals with memory and learning.

The Kavli scientists used the analogy of a radio. When you really want to “tune in” to listen, we focus on what we want to hear and tune out the distractions of other noise. Our brain can do the same. The brain uses different frequencies of gamma waves to transmit different types of information, which can be past memories or current information of where you are right now. In the hippocampus the brain cells can choose which frequency it wants to focus on and more over can switch to other frequencies very fast in just fractions of seconds.

This shows that our super plastic brains are probably even more plastic than we have first believed. We know that we can strengthen new neural pathways in our brain and allow others to diminish but this demonstrates an even greater flexibility is possible, whereby brain cells can select different brain frequencies and constantly change very quickly.

So how does that help us with our older brains?

Well if we can learn to train our brains to ignore all those distractions more easily then our concentration and short-term memory would benefit.

One current way to do this is to undertake attention training.

There are a number of studies looking at Brain Games but the suggestion is that doing brain activities such as Sudoku or crossword puzzles helps to reduce our susceptibility to distractions. There are also an ever increasing  number of commercial “Brain Games” now available.

If looking to try one out, then look for one that offers a graded set of activities that can be undertaken over a period of time (over a number of weeks usually) gradually getting harder. Look for those, which have a way you can test yourself as you progress, to give you a measurable idea of your improvement.

Brain Games are not for everyone, if you have a different form of brain activity you enjoy, do that!

It’s really important to choose one that appeals to you, is within your budget and that you will enjoy doing.

Participating in a regular or daily session of focussed brain training or stimulation will pay off in bucket loads with helping us to have better short term memories and improved concentration and I’m all for that!

Reference: Laura Le Colgin, Tobias Denninger, Marianne Fyhn, Torkel Hafting, Tora Bonnievie, Ole Jensen, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser Frequency of gamma oscillations routes flow of information in te hippocampus. Nature, 2009;462 (7271): 353 10.1038/nature08573