attention training

New games, new books!

  • a new book to help you master the Russian / Cyrillic alphabet
  • new hardcover and large print formats for some books
  • improved distribution / availability of my books
  • new online games
  • new card game for those wanting to test or improve their memory & attention skills in the physical world

I have a new book available, the first "spin-off" from my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary. The Easy Russian Alphabet: A Visual Workbook is slim (only 80 pages), very visual, with lots of mnemonic images and lots of white space, and plenty of reviews for practice. It includes some 340 words for additional practice, most of which are cognates, with obvious meanings (verbal mnemonics have been provided for those few that are less obvious).

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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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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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How working memory works: What you need to know

A New Yorker cartoon has a man telling his glum wife, “Of course I care about how you imagined I thought you perceived I wanted you to feel.” There are a number of reasons you might find that funny, but the point here is that it is very difficult to follow all the layers. This is a sentence in which mental attributions are made to the 6th level, and this is just about impossible for us to follow without writing it down and/or breaking it down into chunks.


Clapp, W. C., Rubens, M. T., Sabharwal, J., & Gazzaley, A. (2011). Deficit in switching between functional brain networks underlies the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015297108

Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, Klaus, & Chee, A. E. H. (2010). The Components of Working Memory Updating : An Experimental Decomposition and Individual Differences. Cognition, 36(1), 170 -189. doi: 10.1037/a0017891.

Fukuda, K., & Vogel, E. K. (2011). Individual Differences in Recovery Time From Attentional Capture. Psychological Science, 22(3), 361 -368. doi:10.1177/0956797611398493

Jonides, J., Lewis, R. L., Nee, D. E., Lustig, C. a, Berman, M. G., & Moore, K. S. (2008). The mind and brain of short-term memory. Annual review of psychology, 59, 193-224. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093615.

Kinderman, P., Dunbar, R.I.M. & Bentall, R.P. (1998).Theory-of-mind deficits and causal attributions. British Journal of Psychology 89: 191-204.

Lange, E. B., & Verhaeghen, P. (in press). No age differences in complex memory search: Older adults search as efficiently as younger adults. Psychology and Aging.

Oberauer, K, Sus, H., Schulze, R., Wilhelm, O., & Wittmann, W. (2000). Working memory capacity — facets of a cognitive ability construct. Personality and Individual Differences, 29(6), 1017-1045. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00251-2.

Oberauer, K. (2005). Control of the Contents of Working Memory--A Comparison of Two Paradigms and Two Age Groups. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(4), 714-728. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.31.4.714

Oberauer, Klaus. (2006). Is the Focus of Attention in Working Memory Expanded Through Practice ? Cognition, 32(2), 197-214. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.32.2.197.

Oberauer, Klaus. (2009). Design for a Working Memory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 51, 45-100.

Verhaeghen, P., Cerella, J. & Basak, C. (2004) A Working Memory Workout : How to Expand the Focus of Serial Attention From One to Four Items in 10 Hours or Less. Cognition, 30 (6), 1322-1337.

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Improving attention through nature

Until recent times, attention has always been quite a mysterious faculty. We’ve never doubted attention mattered, but it’s only in the past few years that we’ve appreciated how absolutely central it is for all aspects of cognition, from perception to memory. The rise in our awareness of its importance has come in the wake of, and in parallel with, our understanding of working memory, for the two work hand-in-hand.

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Seeing without words

I was listening on my walk today to an interview with Edward Tufte, the celebrated guru of data visualization. He said something I took particular note of, concerning the benefits of concentrating on what you’re seeing, without any other distractions, external or internal. He spoke of his experience of being out walking one day with a friend, in a natural environment, and what it was like to just sit down for some minutes, not talking, in a very quiet place, just looking at the scene.

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