It seems like there’s no end to the list of things that go haywire after a traumatic brain injury.

One of the things I haven’t written about is short attention span. Of all the more frustrating things that I was left with after the stroke I experienced, it was hard it was to focus and keep my mind on something. After my stroke,  my short attention span was shot.

How bad was it?

Early on I would burn it in my brain that I needed to say or ask something. After a tremendous amount of will, I would ask or say what I’d needed to get out. And then just a short while later I would ask or say it again.

I’m sure it must have been irritating.

I tend to talk in paragraphs, and many times before I’d reached the end of the paragraph I was speaking, I would forget what I meant to say next. That still happens, but being the clever fellow I pretend to be, I learned to fake my way through it, by pausing and pretending to
consider my next words. I think sometimes my forgetfulness is taken as thoughtfulness.

I still have to do that at times.

My short term memory still isn’t the greatest. I mentioned my concern about my memory to my doctor, who referred me to occupational therapy. After two sessions the therapist told me my short-term memory is in the normal range—but it wasn’t normal for me.

However, my long term memory is stellar.

I think there must be some link between short attention span and both short and long term memory. Paying attention in the first place is a key component of memory and recall. Neuroscientists believe there are two areas of the brain that control attention. One region controls attention by filtering what is and is not important at any given moment. The prefrontal cortex is involved with attention span; it trains your brain to focus on what’s important and to filter out distractions, keep you on task and stay focused. Then it stimulates the other part of the brain which helps process information. If the prefrontal cortex underperforms, attention span is affected.  

Just like so many after effects of brain injury, whether these functions are affected and the extent depends on which areas of the brain are injured.

One thing I do that helps with short term memory is to mentally list the things I need to do and assign each one a number. If I need to finish five things, I number them them one to five. After I finish one I strike that number from the list and move on to the next one. That helps me
remember what I need to do and cuts down on that, what did I come in here for? experience.

I also use association techniques in my writing. Everybody knows from writing assignments in school that writing takes attention and focus. Lots of what I write requires me to do research on complex subjects, like this one. I condense an idea or fact down to one or two keywords and make a list. Each of those keywords represent a fact or an idea. When I have enough to start writing, I assemble those facts or ideas and flesh them out. Associating a word with a concept or fact works great for me because one of the ways our brains work is through association.

But enough about me. Time for some suggestions from professionals to manage short term memory and short attention span:

  • Chew gum. Various studies have found that chewing gum improves attention and performance at work. (I have no idea how this is supposed to help but it’s recommended by professionals).
  • Reduce distractions as much as possible.
  • Take regular breaks.
  • Meditate and take deep breaths. 
  • Break up tasks into small and achievable steps, using a step-by-step system. This is what I do with numbering tasks the way I mentioned before.
  • Write notes to yourself and keep them in specific places. Use a voice recorder or smart phone voice memo app.
  • Use association techniques. I explained above one of the ways I use association.
  • Schedule demanding tasks for when your energy levels and alertness are at their highest points.
  • When your attention starts to wander, set what you’re doing aside and do something else until you feel like you can focus again.
  • Healthy diet and regular sleep—this helps your brain health; as your brain gets healthier, the better your memory.
  • Use a timer and gradually increase the time intervals. Focus during that time interval and increase it as your focus time increases.
  • When you meet someone new, repeat their name back to them, and use their name in conversation (Isaac, to answer your question… for example).

This is a short summary of a complex subject; there is much more. Just keep working on your attention span and things should get better. Cognitive recovery may take more recovery time than physical recovery. Be patient; memory may show gradual improvement over time.

Isaac Peterson grew up on an Air Force base near  Cheyenne, Wyoming. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he embarked on a career as an award-winning investigative journalist and as a semi-professional musician in the Twin Cities, the place he called home on and off for 35 years. He doesn’t mind it at all if someone offers to pick up his restaurant tab and, also, welcomes reader comments. Email him at Read more articles by Isaac here;

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