Memory, Attention, and the Holidays

Memory, Attention, and the Holidays

Maybe some backgound on memory research will give you a clue as to why the holidays often pass by in a blur.


I recently attended a fascinating day-long seminar on memory taught by Dr. Barry Gordon, who is a professor of neurology and cognitive sciences at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where he founded the Memory Clinic. If you are like me, and regularly forget people’s names and where you put your car keys, this presentation was very reassuring. Apparently, not only is this type of memory loss normal, but problems remembering this type of information actually begin at age 18. Dr. Gordon recommends that, rather than stressing about it, you should reduce your reliance on your memory by making things automatic and by “outsourcing” your memory by using lists, smart phones, etc.

Dr. Gordon’s presentation covered a wide-range of topics, including how your brain forms and stores memories, why some memories become stronger with age and others less strong, types of memories, and things you can do to improve your memory. He also gave us a handy formula for memory strength:

Memory Strength = (Attention) x (Pre-existing memory) x (Repetition) x (Motivation) x (Organization).

Pay Attention

Today, I am going to discuss the first element of Memory Strength, namely Attention. Focusing and paying attention helps get new information into your memory, improves your actual memory storage, which is what forms long term memories, and improves organization. Often when you can’t remember something, it is not that you forgot it, but that you didn’t pay enough attention in the first instance for it to become lodged in your memory.

Dr. Gordon pointed out that not only is it impossible to pay attention to everything, but our brains have automatic shields to protect us from information overload. In other words, while you are reading this, you are probably not paying attention to how your shoes feel, the hum of any lights in the room, or the location of all the objects on your desk. That is a good thing. However, if you fail to focus on things that are important to you, you won’t be aware of or remember them either, at least not in the long run. Needless to say, multi-tasking is not the best idea because in order to multi-task you have to shift your attention back and forth between multiple inputs.

The Holidays

So what does all this have to do with the holidays? Let me back up and tell you a story about a shopping trip that my husband, Greg, and I took a few years ago. Both of us dislike shopping and at this point I can’t remember what year it was, what we were shopping for, or exactly where we were – no doubt I was not paying attention but instead was thinking about how I wished I wasn’t there. I do remember, however, that we were in an overheated department store, it was crowded, and there was a large, garishly decorated, fake Christmas tree in the corner. And, to add insult to injury, the tree was slowly spinning around, flashing its lights, while loudly playing some insipid holiday music.

This all gave me a major case of sensory overload, which meant I couldn’t pay attention, I was getting a headache, and I was getting in a really bad mood. When all of a sudden, there was peace and quiet. No obnoxious holiday songs, no flashing lights, no twirling tree. And no Greg. It turns out that he was also on the verge of losing it, so he took matters into his own hands, wandered over to the tree, got down on his hands and knees, crawled behind it, and unplugged it. I was thrilled!

I am not suggesting that you all rush out and commit small acts of guerilla un-decorating, but I am suggesting that you recognize that the holidays will be one long blur, with no concrete memories, if you don’t find some quiet time and space where you can focus and pay attention to what you are doing.

With that, happy holidays!