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Hello Brain • Brain Health
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Turning off autopilot

Turning off autopilot

You are lying in bed and trying to remember whether you switched the heating off. We’ve all been there. Many of us react by pointing the finger of blame at our memory. We might even worry that we are becoming increasingly forgetful. The truth may lie elsewhere. It is possible you never flicked your attention on while turning that heating switch off; without this focus on your own action, the memory is not etched in your brain, so there is nothing to remember. You will just have to go check the heating, paying attention to the task this time.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat such absent-mindedness and we could all benefit from knowing some of them. One technique is to stay in the moment, which is to focus on what you are doing while you are doing it. Pilots do this. They use self-talk, check lists and talk through their actions with their co-pilot to keep them in the moment, and stop them turning their attention off – not a good idea when flying an aircraft at 35,000 feet.  

It is worth considering what can blur your attentiveness. You can be led down the path of absentmindedness by stress, medication and alcohol. Also, as you get older you are more likely to experience absentmindedness; unfortunately, this may mislead you into thinking that your memory is to blame and before you know it you start thinking that you are developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Absentmindedness leaves you more exposed to boredom and low mood, so it is certainly a problem worth wrestling. One way is to learn to focus on a task at hand or to make a point of 'switching on' your attention. Mindfulness is when you call attention and focus to the present moment by focusing on breath, body sensation or something in the here and now; it’s rooted in Buddhist philosophy but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice it. It has been used successfully by people to manage depression but is also used by healthy people. Why not give it a go? 

Another thing that you can practice is sustained attention, which means keeping your concentration over a long time period. Just like physical fitness, you need to exercise your focusing skills to keep them in ship-shape, and you’ll get better at keeping your attention switched on for longer the more you practice itIllustration: Attention

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