Memory Training: Learning to be Observant

Our brains receive and process information every second we’re awake (and even when we’re asleep) but that information isn’t necessarily stored in our short- or long-term memories for later access. For example, if you’re looking for a particular street address as you drive, you’ll scan the buildings as you go by, and when you find the one you’re looking for, you’ll unconsciously mark its location by referencing the buildings around it so that you can quickly find it again. You’ll remember it both because of its address (“1435 SW Front Avenue”) and its location (“across from the main library downtown”). However, the buildings you scanned on your way to your target location probably won’t stay in your memory. Do you think you’d remember what was at the corner of the two cross streets three blocks before your destination? That information wasn’t critical to your task of finding the correct location, so you did not have an unconscious motivation to store it.

You can strengthen this unconscious process by improving your ability to focus and remember. Once you are in the habit of actively noticing things around you, this will move from being an active process to being one that is more passive, and something that is automatically continued by your brain. By doing daily practice in being observant, you’ll improve your ability to retain and recall the information that your brain picks up without your conscious direction. In a sense, your brain develops habits – you can choose to make “being observant” one of its habits, and you’ll find that your awareness of the world around you will improve.

This brain training can be done whether your moving or sitting still. Here are two ways to practice focusing your attention:

Attention and awareness on the road. You probably have several set routes you travel on a daily or weekly basis: to and from school or work, trips to the grocery store, going to your parents’ house for Sunday dinners. The next time you’re on the road (whether by car or on foot), pay attention to as much as you can around you. Note: Don’t sacrifice basic driving safety while doing this exercise! When you get to your destination, try to recall specifics about the journey. How many intersections did you go through? How many of those lights were red when you got there? Did you pass anyone on a bicycle? How many of the stores you passed were advertising sales? Was the first fast-food restaurant you passed on the left or the right?

Being aware of your surroundings. Close your eyes right now, and count to ten. When you read this next sentence, don’t look around to check, but answer these questions: What pictures are on the wall behind you? How many pens are on your desk? What color is the paint around the window? Are any of the bulbs in the light fixtures on the ceiling burned out?

Make up your own questions, and see how quickly you get into the habit of noticing – and remembering – everything that’s around you.