Is It Time to Spring Clean Your Mind?
Memory Lapses May Be Due to Mental Clutter
As we grow older, we are more likely to experience lapses in memory. These lapses become more frequent beginning around age 40. Many people panic the first time they forget where they left their keys, or look all over the house for their reading glasses only to find them perched on their head, or arrive at the grocery store forgetting what they came to buy. They worry they are developing memory loss.
In most cases, however, the culprit isn’t Alzheimer’s disease or a similar condition. Instead, most experts consider these temporary lapses to be a normal age-related change in memory function. Recently, Concordia University researchers set out to better understand why older adults are more prone to these types of memory events. The results, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, offer new insight into the forgetfulness that seniors experience.
The Concordia researchers created an experiment in which two groups of participants—one with an average age of 23 and a second group averaging 67 years of age—were asked to perform a working memory task that included recalling and processing different pieces of information. Participants were shown a set of images and instructed to respond to each image in a certain way. The younger participants outperformed their older counterparts, because the seniors were more likely to offer the response that was appropriate to a previous image.
Head researcher Mervin Blair reported, "Basically, older adults are less able to keep irrelevant information out of their consciousness, which then impacts other mental abilities."
What can seniors do to enhance short-term memory? Blair suggests that focusing and reducing "mental clutter" may help. "Reduce clutter," he said. "If you don't, you may not get anything done."
This study should remind us that for people of every age, reducing stress and keeping the mind clutter-free can be beneficial. This spring, as you clean out your closets, try cleaning out your mind as well!
Here are five techniques to try:
- Practice “mindfulness.” Take a class in meditation, listen to a relaxation tape, or try yoga or tai chi. These techniques can help even chronic multitaskers focus better on one thought at a time.
- Turn off your gadgets. Nothing overloads our brains so much as our little electronic leashes that interrupt us in the middle of one task to focus on another. Go ahead, power down your smartphone for an hour—you’ll survive! And unless you are really paying attention, turn off the TV and radio talk shows. There is no use in adding a competing information stream.
- Listen to music. Though music can be distracting if you are trying to concentrate, it also can help banish unwanted thoughts. To promote a tranquil state of mind, pick music that is calming and soothing. No matter what type of music you like, there are choices that will help you unwind.
- Write things down and put them aside. Are you fretting about tomorrow’s tasks even though there is nothing you can do about them today? Do you work problems over and over in your mind, obsess about past events, or compile an ever-growing mental “to-do” list? Keep a notebook where you can write down the thoughts that are swirling around in your head. The list will still be there when you need it.
- Get some exercise and spend some time in nature. Physical activity is a great way to clear the mind, and spending time in green spaces provides a calming sense of perspective.
With a little practice, you’ll be able to move some of that useless clutter out of your mind, leaving room for things you really need.
The American Psychological Association’s Psychology Help Center offers consumer information on emotional health and wellness.
To find a fun tutorial on selecting music to match your activities and moods, see "Your Playlist Can Change Your Life" in the Los Angeles Times.
The Concordia University study cited above first appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
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