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Do You Really Hear What I'm Saying?

I don't know about you, but I often have a hard time focusing on what is said. Now, I don't mean that I have a hard time focusing on the intention or meaning of what someone says, but I have a hard time hearing exactly what was told me. Do you have this problem too?

Okay, maybe the word, "problem" isn't the best word to describe my lack of ability to remember what people say. But inherently, it feels like a problem.

To illustrate why I think that, picture this scenario. You sign up for a class at a local university and you forget your laptop, tablet, cell phone and notebook. All you have with you, is your beaming smile and those ears attached to your head. The lecturer explains the first law of thermodynamics, and your eyes glaze over as you ask, "How will I remember all of this information?"

Or imagine that you are making a visit to the physician and he/she gives you specific instructions for how to manage your diet. You forget a quarter of the instructions that were given to you as you walk out of the office.

The value is pretty clear. If you could remember the things that were spoken to you, life would be a little easier.


In the BBC show Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes is confronted with Charles Augustus Magnussen - a slimy and overall wretched man. He uses peoples secrets to bribe them to do his bidding. When Sherlock is called in to act as a mediator to retrieve some letters from Magnussen, Magnussen insults Britain and urinates on the fire in Sherlocks flat. The moment is emotionally charged because of how insulting he is being. Amidst all of this, Magnussen shows Sherlock the letters by pulling them out of his suit pocket. This is the only thing that Sherlock seems to take away from the conversation. Not the insults or the condescending tones, just the letters.

What does this have to do with listening? Listening is very often selective. For example, consider the last time someone was talking about a subject that you had no interest in. How much do you recall about the conversation? Probably not that much. But if someone talks to you about something that does interest you, all of a sudden, your memory of the conversation improves.

What's the point? Just as Sherlock uses his focus to hone on details like the location of certain letters he wishes to retrieve, we can use the same idea of focus to hone in on auditory information that we wish to memorize. Here are three tips to focus on.

Tip 1) Be in the moment.

Being in the moment often requires that we refocus our energy as well as our priorities. It's all too easy to go about our days focused on only the things we care about. But if we want to remember more of what is said, we have to be willing to be engaged in the moment. This means finding ways to make what we are listening to interesting.

Making things interesting for us does require some effort, especially if the information isn't something we necessarily were expecting to hear. Our brains are fine tuned to shut out inputs that aren't useful to us. So if we want the information that comes our way to stick, we have to be willing to be in the moment. We have to be willing to be present.

Tip 2) Look for the application.

Most information that is given to us in auditory format, just as visual format, can be used in some kind of way. Even if that information doesn't apply to us directly. What do I mean by that? Let's say that I am listening to a talk show on the radio while I commute to work. The program is discussing which fertilizers to use for a Magnolia tree. If you are thinking, "there's no way a program like this exists" think again. Haha. This is a program my parents listen to virtually every Sunday. And yes, they get into the nitty gritty of fertilizers and compost mixes.

Anyways, in my day to day life, this information is virtually useless. But if I look for application of any kind, the information sticks a little bit more in my brain. For example, if I could look for various Magnolia trees within my region and find out if those trees are using the optimal fertilizer that information I learned on the radio actually will come in handy. I could save the information to share with my parents in case they missed the program. The point is, there are always ways to apply information. When we have something to apply the information too, it sits in our minds a little bit more.

Tip 3) Focus on listening.

If we have usage of our ears, we all tend to hear things, but sometimes we don't listen. Listening requires more energy and focus than just hearing. For example, I could hear a number of songs played on the radio all day. If I didn't know those songs, if I just heard them, it would take a long time to memorize the lyrics of those songs. However if I focused on actually listening to the song with the intention of memorizing the lyrics, my prefrontal cortex will give me a little bit more boost in the focus department and a little more hippocampus to memorize the information. I guess what I mean is, if you go into a situation with the intention of focusing on listening, the chances of memorizing what is heard will improve.


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