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Science behind Attention and Concentration

There are 2 Brain regions that control concentration and attention…

Isn’t it an exhilarating feeling when you are able to blur the world around you and calibrate your brain to lose in the work you’re doing? Whether you call it concentration, focus, attention, escapism, flow, meditation or even work-induced trance, you have to admit that it’s your sweet spot.

We all struggle to sustain concentration in our daily lives

Countless distractions keep our brains from focusing on a single task. To get a better understanding of how our attention system works and how to train it, social psychologist Susan Perry, PhD, tells that it is important to understand what is actually happening in your brain when you are focusing on something and what happens when you get distracted? Then only we can create tools to minimize those distractions and train our brain to concentrate better. After all, concentration is a skill and we can train it with practice.

What is happening in your brain when you are concentrating?

The ability to focus on something you want while ignoring all other competing distracters is selective attention. Selective attention is controlled by top-down attention system. This system is voluntary in nature. You can focus on anything you desired to. Two separate regions of the brain control attention…

1. Prefrontal cortex induced willful concentration. One that is required to study for the test or writing a book is located directly behind the forehead. The neurons of prefrontal cortex emit impulses at the slower frequencies to control deliberate or voluntary attention.

A study by MIT neuroscientist reveals that focused attention of faces and places around us (spatial attention) are controlled by a part of prefrontal cortex known as inferior frontal junction (IFJ).

IFJ take charge of the brain’s attention system and control specific parts of visual cortex (the part of brain that receives sensory input) – fusiform face area (region that processes faces) and the Para hippocampal place area (region that interprets what’s happening in a particular location).

2. Parietal cortex induced automatic attention. If there is a riveting event- a loud noise, attack of an animal- our parietal cortex (located behind the ear) is activated. The neurons of parietal cortex emit pulses of electricity at a faster rate for processing automatic attention.

How do we lose concentration?

The root of loosing focus is evolutionary. It’s the evolutionary system that requires your concentration to break when the situation is dangerous or rewarding- it was actually meant to keep us safe. Breaking focus is controlled by involuntary bottom-up attention system. You have no control over this system as it is hard-wired into your brain as a passive process.

Two external stimuli that can easily break our focus are bright or flashing lights or colors and loud noises.

Bright lights or novel flashes tend to win the competition for brain’s attention system. But this involuntary impulse can be trained to override by the top-down voluntary process. Dr. Desimone a neuroscientist at MIT has found that neurons in the prefrontal cortex start oscillating in unison and send impulses to visual cortex to heed something else.

These oscillations, called gamma waves can have trouble getting through in a noisy surrounding. “It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial,” said Dr. Desimone, “If you’re trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words.”

Mark A. W. Andrews form Seton Hill University in Greensburg says that the background or ambient noise can disrupt people’s concentration by increasing release of stress hormone, cortisol. Excess cortisol impairs the functioning of prefrontal cortex, affecting memory and learning.

But once your attention is broken, it may take up to 25 minutes to return to the original concentration, as proved by studies done by Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine.

We can retain focus only around 50% of the times

An average office worker is interrupted anywhere between every 3-10 minutes. These interruptions can come from external distracters- colleagues, phone calls or emails or it can be internal distractions. In fact, according to Gloria Mark Research, we interrupt ourselves around 44% of the time. However, human brain has the ability to focus on something for up to two hours at a stretch after that our brain requires a break of 20-30 minutes.

So why can’t we focus up to ‘attention’ potential?

You can blame multitasking. In today’s work culture, our mind is so busy in multitasking and keeping track of so many inputs that it is highly difficult to make the transition from all over the place to right here.

Psychologists have long assumed that multitasking is a myth. Our brain cannot process more than one information at a time. A 2009 Stanford study that compared the heavy multitaskers with light multitaskers has shown that heavy multitaskers have difficulty in ignoring irrelevant stimuli or organize their memories and switching from one task to another.

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they are not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

Few simple tips to increase focus and concentration

1. Yoga asana: The traditional Indian techniques of Yoga asana can help you focus more. The researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign proved this, after their study on 30 participants. Those who took a single, 20-minute yoga asana session were considerably faster and more accurate on their tests on working memory and inhibitory control, when compared to participants who walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes. Working memory and inhibitory control are the measures of brain function associated with the ability to concentrate, recollect and use new information.

2. Drink water: Staying hydrated will improve your level of concentration. Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory found out that even mild dehydration affects mental functioning.

3. Sleep: Improper sleep patterns can make one easily distracted. If you’re facing problems to focus of late, please ascertain whether you are sleeping for at least 6 to 7 hours every night. Dr Vatsal G Thakkar of the New York University School of Medicine believes that a lack of delta sleep often leads to concentration issues. Delta sleep is the deep stage of sleep, which is important for efficient cognitive functioning.

4. Meditation: Find time to meditate, even it is for half an hour every day. A study by the University of Washington found out that meditation helped workers to concentrate better. A study by the University of California on 48 undergraduate students also found out that meditation decreases distraction and increases working memory.

5. Reduce stress and anxiety: Proper management of stress and anxiety is essential to maintain your focus over a long period of time. If you’re feeling overtly anxious and stressful, a consultation with a psychologist or a counselor might do a world of good for you.

6. Food: What we eat determines how our brain is. The food we eat significantly affects our cognitive functions. Try eating adequate quantities of nutritious food at regular intervals. Have at least three wholesome meals every day.

A simple concentration exercise

You can practice the following concentration ‘Trataka’ exercise to hone your focusing skills.

Sit in a quiet room or place and make sure you will not be distracted by any means. Focus on any object or image. It could be a painting or a photo or even a candle. But, ensure that the object you focus on is not repulsive. Whenever you get distracted, try bringing your focus back on the object gently. Don’t criticise yourself when the mind wanders. Practice this exercise for at least 15 minutes a day.

Concentration doesn’t mean to pay attention to one thing you’ve got to focus on, but it actually requires saying no to all other stimuli that are competing for your attention by simply avoiding multitasking.

Related article… Mindfulness in Daily Life

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