FastCompany had an article on how to boost memory:

It begins with this premise:

If we ever meet and then we meet a second time, and I greet you by saying, “Hey man,” it’s not because I’m an ultra casual kind of guy, it’s because I’ve forgotten your name.

But please, don’t feel bad. It’s not because you’re boring or unimportant or uninteresting. It’s not because of you at all. It’s me. Or more specifically, it’s this thing I have (this thing we all have, actually), called continuous partial attention (CPA). The term was first coined in the late 1990s to describe how we started to deal with the increasing influx of “never-ending” information. Back in the 1990s, this was basically our cell phone and the Internet (whenever we were at our desk, that is). We began giving a lot of information all a little bit of attention. We were adapting—and it was manageable.

Jump forward almost 20 years and our desk-bound Internet has become our everywhere Internet, and our cell phones have become smartphones with more pings and notifications than we ever thought possible. Combine that with social media, our laptops, our smart watches, and our CPA is in overdrive. Our brains can’t keep up with all the stimulation, so it begins to push things we should remember—simple things like names—out of our minds to make room for a very broad overview of our social media mentions and push notifications.

I don’t know how old Michael Grothaus is, but I can assure him that back in the 60’s and 70’s (and likely for years and years before that) people were still not remembering simple things like people’s names or the telephone number they just dialed. Here’s a bit of an experiment to prove that people generally don’t pay attention. The next time you see someone check the time on their watch (or more likely, their cell phone) immediately ask them what time it is. Odds are they couldn’t tell you without looking again, even though that information should still be in short-term memory.

I was doing this experiment in the 1980’s and continuous partial attention (CPA) was alive and well long ages before the internet came into being. Linda Stone had a blog post on CPA and she treats it as a new phenomenon too. As I recall from my elementary school days, CPA was a coping mechanism for surviving the dull boring lectures that made up the school day. I believe they called it “daydreaming” back then. I’m not really sure what solution these authors are proffering other than the one Mrs. Putney, my English teacher, was constantly directing at me – PAY ATTENTION! In retrospect, I don’t think that is really a helpful admonition that directs us to productive activity. Sure, I needed to pay attention, but there was no instruction in how to pay attention. We tacitly assume that everyone knows that already. Research suggests that’s not the case.

FastCompany recommends Dr. Gary Small’s book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, and summarizes some of his findings with these three steps to improve memory:

  • Meditate
  • Focus and Frame
  •  Prospective Review Time

Many of the techniques mentioned in the “Focus and Frame” section are reminiscent of the mnemonic exercises offered by Jerry Lucas, the famed memory coach. The key to most memory techniques is that a person has to be deliberate and disciplined about making the effort to attend to stimuli in order to succeed in these endeavors. In other words, people need to pay attention. Once again, Captain Obvious delivers.

Let me provide a more helpful example. A person who doesn’t ever want to be caught not knowing what time it is seconds after looking at a watch, must first of all determine that every time they look at a watch, clock, or timepiece, they will make a mental note of what time it is. Simply put, they attend to the time at every opportunity through conscious effort. The next step is that they have to put this attentive awareness in a context that gives the stimulus meaning. If they look at the clock and note it is 3:25, one of the things they could do to contextualize this number is to think, “I’ll be going home in an hour and 35 minutes.” If they do something similar every time they look at the time, anchoring what they just saw in the context of what they are doing or about to do, within a few weeks, they will begin to develop an almost uncanny sense of what time it is. People will be able to ask them if they have the time and, without looking at a watch, they could tell the person the correct time within five minutes. The chances are pretty good that they had seen a clock of some sort within the last hour and because they were attentive to it, they know about how long ago it was that they had noted the time, did the mental math, and were able to estimate what the time is now. This is the definition of paying attention – attending to a phenomenon.

We saw last week that paying attention comes with some costs. In some cases, concentration focuses our attention so tightly that we are oblivious to other stimuli, even when it is glaringly obvious. The act of concentrating on one thing prevents us from attending to something else. Stage magicians do this deliberately with misdirection while eLearning Instructional Designers often do this unintentionally with spelling mistakes, grammar errors, or needless complications in training. These are things that break people’s information flow and interrupt their concentration.

At the same time, a lack of stimulus often hinders attention. I just saw this from eLearning Brothers and it points to the fact that we are hard-wired to receive certain stimulus cues that actually improve, focus, and direct attention. Relating this to my last post, I believe such hard wiring is linked to our innate need to recognize patterns and even to create patterns where they do not exist. This is why it is incredibly difficult to duplicate four musical tones played in a random order, but it is childishly simple to play the same four tones in an order that makes a tune. As long as additional stimuli fit into and reinforce an easily understood pattern, they do not add to the cognitive load and may actually help reduce it.

And this brings us to a final aspect of paying attention – habituation. Skilled basketball players do not pay attention to their dribbling, nor do skilled musicians pay attention to what fingerings they use when playing notes. These actions are so deeply habituated that if these professionals were asked to concentrate on their actions, it might actually hinder their performance. Knowing what time it is can become so habituated that it is done without conscious effort. Want to know how I know that? In summary, paying attention can be practiced to such a degree and become so deeply ingrained that we no longer have to pay attention to notice things. If you have any doubts, just watch a kid manipulate a Nintendo or PS3 controller with all its knobs and buttons and try to duplicate those moves yourself.

We need to be alert to attention and habituated behavior or the lack of it when designing our training. We most often run into these issues as user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) issues. The most obvious eLearning faux pas in my opinion is to use underlining for text emphasis instead of bold or italics. This is especially egregious if you make your text blue with an underline like this. See? Isn’t that aggravating? How many times did you click the non-link before giving up? Just to make you feel better about all that fruitless clicking, I’ll give you a link to learn more about how habituation affects cognition here.

In a word, effective engagement leading to appropriate attention occurs when we provide sufficient stimulation to create interest but not so much that it becomes distracting or confusing. The stimulus that we provide needs to fit within the context or pattern of the training we’re developing in order to make sense. We need to keep in mind that trying to find the balance between too much and too little stimulation is sometimes subtle and sometimes not. More about attention and the learning space in future missives. For now, “eliminating distractions” may or may not be a good thing depending on the context, so don’t be surprised if some of your efforts backfire. Paying attention is not as simple as Mrs. Putney made it out to be.