Memory and Attention: A Symbiotic Relationship for a Better Brain

Boost your memory with these high-powered brain exercises

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily

After a particularly grueling study session, you may be tired but your brain is sharper. That’s because you’re strengthening your memory while also building up your mental discipline and filtering out distractions. Dr. Restak provides some brain workouts that will boost your memory and enhance your cognitive skills.

Close up of woman holding up puzzle piece
As you focus on memorizing information to store in either short- or long-term memory, you are making your brain attentive to the task at hand. Photo by Orawan Pattarawimonchai / Shutterstock

Link between Memory and Attention

Training your attention to focus on one thing for a sustained period of time holds many benefits, including improved concentration and performance on tests measuring general intelligence. Attention and memory are highly interrelated, and by enhancing one, you enhance the other. Think of attention as a conduit for sharpening other cognitive skills. 

You can use a variety of memory techniques to strengthen your brain and train your attention, including sensory, short-term, and long-term memory exercises. Short-term memory is used to temporarily store pieces of information in our brain, such as a parking spot, and it’s the first thing to decrease with aging. Thus, it’s important to be proactive in preserving our short-term memory.

One short-term memory exercise is called a forward digit span, where a person is given a sequence of numbers, repeating each number one by one. This exercise will help you with math and reading proficiency and enhanced performance in attention, concentration, sequencing, and auditory and visual short-term memory.

Sensory Memory Exercises

Sensory memory involves using your senses to memorize information. One exercise you can engage in is to imagine you’re a writer mentally recording a description as you’re observing a scene or object.

Use as many sensory factories as possible when focusing on the subject, taking in the smell, texture, sounds, and colors. Capture the information in the form of an image—the starker and more dramatic, the better. 

For example, if you’re sitting at a bus stop, look at the person sitting beside you. What exactly are they wearing? Take note of the shape, blends of colors, and fabric.

If it’s a suit, you can hone in on what type of necktie the person is wearing. If it’s a dress, you can observe whether it’s formal or casual, and to be more specific, what type of dress it is—a shift dress, wrap dress, sheath dress, etc.

Sometimes we’re moving through life and not really paying attention. We miss a lot. Slowing down and cementing these details in our mind not only strengthens our memory but also enriches our overall life experience. 

Additionally, you can look at pictures rapidly and then close your eyes and try to describe them. Finally, you can engage attention and memory on an auditory level by listening and recalling exactly what you’ve heard.

In a game called “Clap Your Name,” you say your name, slapping your thighs as you say the consonants and clapping your hands as you say the vowels. To challenge yourself more, you can play the game with someone else. You will be momentarily confused because one will interfere with the other, but you’re able to do this after some practice.  

Long-Term Memory Exercises

Long-term memories encompass a broad category and can include anything from childhood memories to memorizing information for a test. One way you can simultaneously strengthen this type of memory and your attention is to create and learn a system of memory pegs based on your life experiences. 

The peg system is a technique that helps you remember key items by matching them with concrete associations. For example, to remember the definition of alliteration (the repetition of the same letter or sound), you might recall how your mother would constantly tell you not to litter and would repeat this over and over.

Thus, these techniques allow you to strengthen your memory while also training your attention. You must focus in order to perform these exercises, which leads to greater mental discipline and an ability to tune out distractions. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 201 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.