How Ignoring Stuff Makes You Smarter

We’ve all accused somebody of selective hearing before, or have been accused of the same. We probably thought at the time that this potential manifestation of selective attention was an impediment. But neuroscientific studies of working memory are revealing the opposite.

Working memory is like the brain’s dashboard–it’s where the brain stores things before determining whether they will be committed to long term memory. For a long time now, it’s been generally accepted that working memory can store about seven distinct items of information at a time, give or take two. But it’s also been generally accepted that there are outliers–individuals who store more relevant information. And since working memory is generally tied to intelligence, these people had simply been dismissed as prodigies.

Enter a team of neuroscientists from Simon Fraser University, who’ve recently suggested that it’s not just what you can retain, but also what you can ignore. Specifically, attention (the precursor to memory) actually relies equally on two distinct cognitive processes: the ability to retain relevant information and the ability to ignore irrelevant information. So while it is possible that people who remember more than 7 chunks of information are prodigies, it is also possible that they simply have a strong ability to retain relevance and ignore irrelevance simultaneously.

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