Improving attention

Forget the persistent myth that everything is remembered; that our brains are video cameras whirring away recording everything, and that such 'hidden' knowledge can be brought to light by a hypnotist or alien artefact. Such things are the stuff of fantasy. Of course, there is a nugget of truth there: we can, and do, remember things we've paid no conscious attention to. Sometimes the right question can elicit memories we didn't know we had, in more detail than we imagined we could have. But for the most part, what's not noticed is not remembered. Attention is crucial to memory.

In particular, attention is crucial to good encoding. That is, the construction of memories that will be easily accessed.

In study, of course, we become especially aware of the connection between attention and memory. That's because learning is all about the deliberate construction of accessible memories.

But attention is somewhat of a bugbear: we all recognize its importance, but improving it is no easy task. Nor does research have as much to offer as it might. There are no quick and easy 'fixes' to failing concentration, to the difficulties of focusing on your work when your mind is full of other things.

Here's the most important thing to know when it comes to understanding attention: Attention and working memory are inextricably entwined. Indeed, it's thought that your working memory capacity reflects the extent to which you can control your attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information or competing demands.

In other words, the undeniable differences between people’s working memory capacity are not so much because people differ in how much information they can keep active, but because they vary in their ability to control attention.

Controlling attention has two main aspects:

  • your ability to focus on one thing
  • your ability to ignore distracting and irrelevant information.

It now seems likely that an erosion in the ability to ignore distraction is the principal reason for the cognitive decline so often seen with age.

Your ability to ignore distraction is also challenged by other circumstances, such as stress and anxiety, sleep deprivation, busy environments.

Improving your attention, then, is a complex task, that should be approached from multiple directions:

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Practice counts! So does talent

The thing to remember about Ericsson’s famous expertise research, showing us the vital importance of deliberate practice in making an expert, is that it was challenging the long-dominant view that natural-born talent is all-important. But Gladwell’s popularizing of Ericsson’s “10,000 hours” overstates the case, and of course people are only too keen to believe that any height is achievable if you just work hard enough.

The much more believable story is that, yes, practice is vital — a great deal of the right sort of practice — but we can’t disavow “natural” abilities entirely.


Campitelli, G., & Gobet F. (2011).  Deliberate Practice. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 20(5), 280 - 285.

Campitelli, G., & Gobet, F. (2008). The role of practice in chess: A longitudinal study. Learning and Individual Differences, 18, 446–458.

Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess. Developmental Psychology, 43, 159–172.

Hambrick, D. Z., & Meinz, E. J. (2011). Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 275 –279. doi:10.1177/0963721411422061

Hambrick, D.Z., & Engle, R.W. (2002). Effects of domain knowledge, working memory capacity and age on cognitive performance: An investigation of the knowledge-is-power hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 44, 339–387.

Hambrick, D.Z., Libarkin, J.C., Petcovic, H.L., Baker, K.M., Elkins, J., Callahan, C., et al. (2011). A test of the circumvention-of-limits hypothesis in geological bedrock mapping. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Published online Oct 17, 2011.

Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2005). Does domain knowledge moderate involvement of working memory capacity in higher level cognition? A test of three models. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 377–397.

Meinz, E. J., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2010). Deliberate Practice Is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill. Psychological Science, 21(7), 914–919. doi:10.1177/0956797610373933


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Achieving flow

I’ve recently had a couple of thoughts about flow — that mental state when you lose all sense of time and whatever you’re doing (work, sport, art, whatever) seems to flow with almost magical ease. I’ve mentioned flow a couple of times more or less in passing, but today I want to have a deeper look, because learning (and perhaps especially that rewiring I was talking about in my last post) is most easily achieved if we can achieve "flow" (also known as being ‘in the zone’).

Let’s start with some background.

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Choosing when to think fast & when to think slow

I recently read an interesting article in the Smithsonian about procrastination and why it’s good for you. Frank Partnoy, author of a new book on the subject, pointed out that procrastination only began to be regarded as a bad thing by the Puritans — earlier (among the Greeks and Romans, for example), it was regarded more as a sign of wisdom.

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Attributes of effective practice

One of my perennial themes is the importance of practice, and in the context of developing expertise, I have talked of ‘deliberate practice’ (a concept articulated by the well-known expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson). A new paper in the journal Psychology of Music reports on an interesting study that shows how the attributes of music practice change as music students develop in expertise. Music is probably the most studied domain in expertise research, but I think we can gain some general insight from this analysis. Here’s a summary of the findings.


Hallam, S., Rinta, T., Varvarigou, M., Creech, a., Papageorgi, I., Gomes, T., & Lanipekun, J. (2012). The development of practising strategies in young people. Psychology of Music, 40(5), 652–680. doi:10.1177/0305735612443868

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Event boundaries and working memory capacity

In a recent news report, I talked about how walking through doorways creates event boundaries, requiring us to update our awareness of current events and making information about the previous location less available. I commented that we should be aware of the consequences of event boundaries for our memory, and how these contextual factors are important elements of our filing system. I want to talk a bit more about that.


Culham, J. 2001. The brain as film director. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5 (9), 376-377.

Kurby, C. a, & Zacks, J. M. (2008). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(2), 72-9. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.11.004

Speer, N. K., Zacks, J. M., & Reynolds, J. R. (2007). Human Brain Activity Time-Locked to Narrative Event Boundaries. Psychological Science, 18(5), 449–455. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01920.x

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