Reading: Focus Memory



Let’s talk about how hard it is to remember a new phone number. Someone—maybe even me—gives you their telephone number, say something like 231-579-0912, and within moments, you’ve forgotten it. At best, maybe you can recall the first three digits. Was it 231? But the rest of the digits have disappeared, a blank spot, a wisp of a memory.  

Phone companies have long struggled with this issue. At first, the frailties of human memory were generally avoided. When firms first rolled out telephone lines in the 1800s, people would just pick up the handset and tell the operator the name of the person that they wanted to reach.

As telephones became more common and this personalized approach became too complex, phone companies tried to standardize phone numbers with a type of mnemonic memory device, relying on area landmarks. So if you lived in Porter City, your phone number might be POrter 3234. If you lived in Elmwood, your number might be ELmwood 4543.

But this numbering system also became a Gordian mess, with long and awkward combinations of names and letters. So, in the late 1950s, the phone companies rolled out still another system, requiring all phone numbers to be seven digits long. This approach is now ubiquitous, and most people around the globe have a phone number that’s around seven digits long.

Yet it turns out that this approach doesn’t work all that well, either. Cognitive scientists tell us that seven-digit numbers typically overwhelm the brain’s short-term memory. Known as the brain’s sketch pad, short-term memory is where people hold temporary information like phone numbers. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty limited holding space, with our brain being able to juggle only around three or four items at time.

In contrast, there’s the brain’s long-term memory, which is pretty expansive. This is where the brain keeps memories of old friends, childhood feuds, and any sort of expertise.

To their credit, phone companies appear to have come to understand the severe limitations of short-term memory on their own. For everyone’s benefit, emergency telephone numbers are just three digits long. For most of us, these shorter numbers—like 911—are memorized with ease, fitting easily into the brain’s short-term memory.

This idea has implications far beyond phone numbers. Researchers like John Sweller have shown that short-term memory is often where learning happens. If we want to learn ballet jumps—or micro-genetics—short-term memory has to process the experience before it arrives in long-term memory.

"...short-term memory is often where learning happens."

The rub is that short-term memory is so, well, short. The brain’s sketch pad is a small sketch pad, which, in many ways, makes short-term memory like a narrow doorway: It keeps out anything large. It blocks out big pieces of information. Or think of short-term memory like a dial-up modem, slow and uncertain.

This fact goes a long way in explaining why we need to target our learning. To gain mastery, we need to break down knowledge and skills into digestible parts and concentrate on discrete bits of mastery. In other words, people have to make sure that any new expertise can fit through the brain’s doorway and become well stored in long-term memory.

This notion explains, for instance, why we can’t multitask while learning. Music, driving, computer programs, they all drag on short-term memory and thus keep us from understanding. Indeed, even a little music in a presentation prevents people from learning. In one study, some people receiving online instruction without background music learned as much 150 percent more than their musically induced peers.

The way content is presented makes a difference, too. Because of the limitations of short-term memory, we learn better in smaller doses. Studies show, for instance, that people typically gain a lot more from an educational experience if there are fewer words or graphics on a page.

Similarly, we need time to process new content. This gives a sense of why short sentences are a writer’s best friend. Fewer words—and more breaks between ideas—make it easier for people to grapple with new information.

Same with studying. I would recommend 45-minute study sessions and then 10 minutes of time off, when you can talk with a friend or check email.

This idea also explains why educators are so important. They help explain ideas to us in ways that we can understand. We don’t often realize this fact. I spoke with Ken Koedinger at Carnegie Mellon not long ago about the fact that it’s hard to be aware of learning.

“So much learning happens underneath the surface that we’re not consciously aware of,” Koedinger told me. For example, when learning your first language, he says, you don’t consciously know how the word “the” works, you just pick up on that, because our brains are very powerful and skilled at “soaking up patterns.”

Still, most of us are like the phone companies. We overestimate how much we can keep in short-term memory. We don’t do enough to make sure we get classes—or teachers—who can break down a subject. In this sense, people often try to learn too much at one time, taking an overloaded, all-you-can-eat-style approach to expertise.

“So much learning happens underneath the surface that we’re not consciously aware of.”

People will think, for instance, that they can learn from a speech while talking to their friend. (They can’t.) Or people will try to understand a big, complicated idea in a single sitting. (They can’t.)

When I reached psychologist John Sweller, he gave the example of foreign language programs that try to instruct people in history or literature or math. By combining the two topics, people learn a lot less, he argues. “You’re going to learn neither,” Sweller told me. “It’s cognitive overload.”

Events often suffer from much the same problem. Long talks, lengthy meetings, prolonged lectures, they can all erode short-term memory, crowding the limited pathway to long-term memory.

Likewise, there are our own thoughts and emotions that intrude on learning. The limited capacity of short-term memory explains why anxieties can be so hurtful to gaining any sort of mastery. When we feel stressed—when we’re scared or fearful—we can’t focus.

Our emotions fill up the brain’s sketchpad. Psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that this sort of stress impacts even the youngest of children. When first and second graders are busy fretting—thinking this is too hard—they have significantly less cognitive power.

At the same time, the nature of short-term memory underscores the value of attention. When you’re learning, stay clear of anything that adds to cognitive overload. So when you’re solving math problems, don’t check Twitter. Likewise, don’t ruminate on travel plans while listening to an important talk. Also, keep off Instagram if you’re really trying to gain a bit of expertise. All of these types of distractions erode short-term memory and keep us from learning.

When it comes to the fragile nature of short-term memory, modern technology proves the point. In my favorite study, which looked at college students who used laptops in class, it was found that the students who were online didn’t learn as much as their Wi-Fi-less peers. Ok, that’s not news: The students with computers were distracted so they learned less.

But the laptop use also decreased the learning of the students who sat next to the computer users, even if the nearby student didn’t actually surf the Web. In other words, the students were distracted by other people’s distraction. Their working memory was compromised by other people’s poorly working memory.

"Strong feelings can also keep us from learning, which means that we can’t gain skills if we feel emotionally uncomfortable."

There’s another important reason that we need to target our learning, and that’s our emotions. Strong feelings can also keep us from learning, which means that we can’t gain skills if we feel emotionally uncomfortable. Our thoughts can’t settle if we feel stressed. Study after study has shown that emotions can drive down learning outcomes. Sadness, depression, even just physical discomfort, they can all make it harder to land expertise. 

So how do we target the emotions associated with learning? How do we manage our feelings and plan for expertise? The answer goes back to targeting, but for now let’s start by considering Jim Taylor. 

For a long time, Taylor was a good but not great slalom skier. While Taylor was ranked nationally, he often didn’t finish races. Anxious about his performance, worried about his times, Taylor would miss gates. He’d make bumbling mistakes and misjudge a turn and crash in a pile of snowy powder. “A mess” is how Taylor described himself. My “own worst enemy.” 

After taking a college psychology class, Taylor tweaked his emotional preparation by using mental imagery to practice for his races. Before Taylor even stepped into the starting gate, he would imagine himself racing down the mountain, envisioning every gate, bump, and hip turn. It was a type of mental dream, a matter of watching himself perform “from the inside out.”

Taylor calls the results of his little intervention “spectacular.” By using mental imagery, he gained a much deeper belief in his abilities and eventually managed to shape how he felt about racing. “From doubt came confidence,” Taylor argues. “From anxiety came intensity.” And within a year, Taylor became one of the top 20 skiers in his age group in the nation and eventually made the U.S. Ski Team.

The power of mental imagery goes back to the interconnected nature of the brain. The deep ties between body and mind explain why mental imagery can produce such dramatic effects: There’s often simply not a big difference between imagining an experience and the experience itself. 

"The deep ties between body and mind explain why mental imagery can produce such dramatic effects."

In this regard, mental imagery allowed Taylor to gain something that psychologists call self-efficacy. It’s a belief in one’s ability, a feeling that one is going to succeed. It turns out to be crucial in dealing with the emotional vagaries of learning, as a way to cope with our feelings. When Taylor practiced mental imagery, he developed an important type of confidence: “When I arrived at a race, I not only knew that I was going to finish. I knew I was going to win.”  

Like many psychological theories, the notion of self-efficacy is both simple yet profound. Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura first developed the concept in the 1970s. In a number of seminal research papers, Bandura argued that people need to have the expectation of success. Specifically, Bandura found that people will engage in activities if they know that they can accomplish the activities. Conversely,  people will avoid activities if those activities seem too difficult or distant. 

Self-efficacy, then, is different than an overall feeling of confidence. It’s not a matter of self-esteem. Instead, the idea revolves around the belief that we can accomplish a very specific task, that we can achieve positive outcomes. 

The expectation of success is at the heart of the learning process, and it brings all sorts of benefits. If we believe that we can accomplish a task, we’re far more likely to put forth effort. With a greater sense of self-efficacy, we’re also far more likely to achieve our goals—and be happier with the results. Just as important, self-efficacy sparks focus. It makes us more targeted, and so we’re far better able to handle distractions.

When I reached out to Bandura, for instance, he emailed back, writing that he was working “late into the night” and had no time for interviews. In a way, this is self-efficacy in action: With more confidence, we’re more committed. We have a deeper sense of control, a richer sense of agency. Bandura had a book that he wanted to write—and he was going to achieve that goal, regardless of the emails that flew into his inbox. 

In this sense, self-efficacy operates as a buffer for the inevitable frustrations of learning. When we know we’re going to achieve, we’re better equipped to deal with setbacks and distractions, with the bruised feelings and dedicated focus that learning requires. Bandura made this point when he eventually made time for an interview. 

During the call, Bandura told me that when people learn, they need ways to cope with various nagging feelings: Am I good enough? Will I fail? What if I’m wrong? Isn’t there something else that I’d rather be doing? For Bandura, these sorts of thoughts and emotions can quickly rob of us our ability to gain expertise. They disrupt our short-term memory. While some of these feelings are typical, experience too many of them and “you’ll get totally wiped out.”  

To manage these thoughts and emotions, we have to write out plans, map out a long-term strategy to keep us motivated. In this regard, learning to learn often boils down to a type of project management. It’s about creating objectives and then describing ways to reach those objectives with clear and achievable benchmarks.

The research is overwhelming on this point: hundreds of studies have shown that people with clear goals outperform people with vague aspirations like “do a good job.” By setting targets, people are better able to accomplish what they want to accomplish. To be clear, learning goals should not be New Year’s Eve-like aims like “master the tango.” Overly ambitious learning targets can backfire, Bandura argues, if they seem too vague and distant. 

"...hundreds of studies have shown that people with clear goals outperform people with vague aspirations..."

Instead, Bandura’s work shows that people are more likely to succeed if they have easy-to-accomplish benchmarks. So instead of something like “master the tango,” people should detail smaller targets like “attend tango lessons once a week” or “practice dance at home on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons.” These sorts of goals can be extremely helpful—and often serve as one of the best ways to manage our emotions. 

At the same time, we need to keep ourselves emotionally motivated. We need to stay focused. In this regard, because self-talk matters, we need to speak to ourselves in ways that avoid dangerous black-and-white thinking, that avoid distractions. So rather than tell yourself, “I’m the worst,” tell yourself “I’m struggling.” Also, make sure to find markers of progress and accomplishment something like noting “I worked for three hours today.”

To overcome the inevitable distractions—and raw mistakes—that come with engaging expertise, set goals, feel in control, know that we can succeed. Skier Jim Taylor puts it well. Learning, he argues, is often about “feeling success in your mind’s eye.” This is true for our emotions. This is true for our focus.

Complete and Continue