Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus
Every single thing we do or think of doing is being controlled by no more than 1.3 kg of our body mass we call the brain.
This incredible organ can handle every process in our body and mind including learning, creating, thinking, feeling, even blinking and breathing.
It amazed people for centuries. A scientist James Watson even called the brain “The most complex thing we have yet discovered in the universe”. And we couldn’t agree more.
It’s confirmed that the brain has around 100 billion cells named neurons. In fact, it would take us over 3000 years to count them.
Just imagine what power they must have! Moving, laughing, dreaming, they all wouldn’t be possible if our neurons weren’t working hard and sending signals everywhere every single second.
This powerful machine works for us 24/7 but we barely even know it. We count on it to collect an incredible amount of information, store it, use it and still function perfectly. But how much is too much?
After being overloaded with dozens of sensory information, the brain developed the ability to prioritize. It needed a limit in order to work efficiently today as it did the previous day.
This effective system makes a barrier once the information gets less interesting or relevant.
The brain basically sorts the incoming data just the way we do it on our desktop.
There are important folders we keep and the trash bin for the rest. It focuses only on what he sorted into these safe folders while the other data gets ignored.
MECHANISM OF ATTENTION
We tend to believe that we’re aware of our attention, but the truth is somehow different.
The brain focuses on more than we think, even if it doesn’t seem so obvious at first.
The brain struggles to keep focus since it pays attention to almost everything that happens.
These processes we don’t notice are mostly on the subconscious level so we often don’t see where our energy gets spent so fast. Just think of the small daily acts you never pay attention to.
For instance, take walking. We walk for miles not realizing that our brain scans every obstacle on the ground, every person we pass, our movement, the heat, and many more.
There are so many shapes, colors, sounds and smells everywhere around you, trying to get your attention.
But the brain lets only the strongest color, loudest noise or worst smell truly grab your focus.
So, besides sorting, the focus mechanism has another half called endogenous attention, which dictates the direction of our attention. It works according to your current goals and desires, as well as the experience it finds in your memory.
However, the attention system has one more key function – switching the focus back and forth as needed.
This modern world’s most useful ability helps us divide the attention between more things at once. We call it multitasking and we’re all familiar with it.
Whether you tried watching television while eating, or typing messages while driving, you’ve experienced this incredible attention system’s function.
Whether you need full attention on one process and less on the other, or equal focus on all of them, our brain can mostly cover it all.
Our brain evolved enough to hold attention selectively on the desired task by blocking all other unwanted and useless processes. It truly works hard to help us reach our mental focus. If you ever wondered how it handles this, keep reading to find out.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE FOCUS
Doing challenging things and engaging in what you do is when you concentrate the most. It can be a funny movie, good riddle, a new skill or anything that your brain sees as a challenge.
Concentration works the best when our brain’s prefrontal cortex gets more than enough neurotransmitters, hormones and other chemicals such as dopamine (the “pleasure chemical”, made after eating tasty food or trying something new).
High dopamine levels offer us a very good feeling which we don’t have naturally. And the brain tends to keep the feeling by focusing on the thing that caused it.
But as soon as you start losing attention, the amount of dopamine we get decreases so we try to find something more engaging to focus on.
This system works with your thoughts and feelings, helping them pair with certain actions.
By engaging this network, we improve both our attention and mental focus.
However, the brain doesn’t have a particular “attention center” somewhere. The ability to focus and pay attention is controlled by a network of different brain parts called the “attention system”.
Its parts can be found basically in every section of the brain. What regions will be working while paying attention to something, depends on the information you’re focusing on and the direction of the attention.
However, the attention system has its “core” which should include sensory parts required for reading the information we get. Next, we have prefrontal and parietal parts which can control the orientation of our attention.
The most crucial chemicals for our attention are acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are necessary for effective focusing and fighting against distractions that surround you.
This neurochemical is one of the key factors in focusing and learning processes and exists in almost every part of the brain. It is being released at synapses, creating a connection between brain cells.
It can connect with two types of receptors within synapses – nicotinic and muscarinic.
While both of them can be found in some other places in the body, their most important role is controlling muscle movement.
But how does acetylcholine affect our focus and attention?
The acetylcholine cells are spread all around the brain, making a huge network we call attention system.
In order to improve focus, acetylcholine links with nicotinic and muscarinic receptors and modulates neural activity in many regions of the brain including sensory, prefrontal and parietal.
Sensory Region: When focusing visually, we activate the part of the sensory region called the visual cortex. If incoming neural signals are weak, the focus will fade faster. Acetylcholine’s role is to strengthen these signals in the visual receptive field. This field is the point of focus.
By improving only relevant incoming neural signals, helps us determine which area of the visual field is important and focus more on it to avoid distractions.
Parietal Region: This is where acetylcholine helps determine the orientation of the attention, whether it’s towards something important or visually interesting for us. It manages the brain and sensation driven attention processes.
Prefrontal Cortex: Higher acetylcholine levels sustain the focus overtime in the prefrontal area.
Many people who have trouble with keeping focus are actually lacking acetylcholine cells in their brains. So experts came out with many drugs that affect our attention efficiently by boosting acetylcholine levels.
The most popular type of these drugs is nicotine, usually found in tobacco. As its name says, it affects nicotinic receptors the same way acetylcholine does.
Besides that, there’s a way to increase the acetylcholine levels, but this time with cholinesterase enzymes as a target.
When acetylcholine transfers the message between brain cells, it’s targeted by cholinesterase enzymes which break it into its components. This stops the acetylcholine from finishing its task.
There are some drugs specially made to prevent cholinesterase enzymes from making damage, such as donepezil and galantamine. They are also intended for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
By boosting acetylcholine levels artificially, we actually boost neural signals in the sensory area where important information is received, increasing our attention and focus.
Dopamine is an enzyme that synthesizes many different neurochemicals in our brain, like serotonin. Dopamine can be attached to two types of receptors – D1 and D2, which can be found in different areas of the brain and have a slightly different way of functioning.
An area that gets the most dopaminergic signals is the prefrontal cortex. There, by targeting both excitatory and inhibitory cells, dopamine increases and adapts neural activity to the particular task.
Dopamine helps us shift the focus according to the information we got previously. In other words, it increases the attention by simply using previous experience to choose what to focus next.
Without this ability, we waste too much time analyzing irrelevant and less important information before finding out what we need. Dopamine helps us find what we should focus faster, all according to the current environment.
As for many other things, people found a way to increase dopamine levels.
They found that some drugs, like the one used for treating Parkinson’s disease, can help dopamine levels rise fast, leading to improved memory and attention.
This neurotransmitter usually found in the brain has similar effects to the adrenaline since it increases alertness and wakefulness. This helps our body get prepared to take action after challenge or threat.
Norepinephrine is actually synthesized from dopamine and has various effects on the whole body, including the peripheral part of a nervous system.
But in the brain, it links with what we call alpha and beta receptors and affects the mental flexibility, movements planning, and execution.
Its main function – wakefulness increasing and brain arousal – leads to better cognitive functions including the speed of our reaction and attention length.
This also helps our focus stay in one place instead of letting it being grabbed by distraction.
However, the most essential of all is the brain energy which allows us to maintain better control over our movements. Its main source is adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is mostly increased by breathing, eating, exercising.
These actions increase levels of glucose and oxygen which is necessary for our brain’s neural activity. High levels of ATP improve cognitive performance on tasks that need focused attention.
THE BRAIN’S LIMIT – HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Naturally, the brain always seeks more entertainment and new information.
The same way it craves for food, it keeps looking for more challenges and discovering new things.
Now many of us would ask why is the brain not as good at executing as it is at gaining new data.
The answer is that the brain’s information-seeking part is strong compared to the controlling part which helps us execute.
Our brain gets tired the same way the body does. Too much focus can lead to exhaustion, weakening the focus circuits in the brain.
This energy drainage also leads to lower self-control, making us impulsive or helpless.
At this stage, we can’t act normal and make reasonable decisions.
We need to ask ourselves – how much focus is too much? What can we do to prevent our brain from exhaustion and save the energy for when it’s needed?
Experts suggest “unfocusing”.
Focusing on the given task is equally important as unfocusing once in a while to help save energy and stay productive. We should work more on the ability to toggle between focus and unfocus on things. A good balance between these two is crucial for the brain to work optimally.
Being unfocused and thinking of nothing particular even enhances creativity by letting your thoughts wander freely. The ability to switch back and forth also reduces stress and anxiety levels. It’s like a free time after work.
There’s a brain circuit we call “default mode” and it activates when we unfocus. For some time people used to believe that default mode has no purpose since it only “turns on” when we stop focusing on our own.
However, this circuit is a true energy eater since it uses almost 20% of the body’s energy, unlike the normal 5%. It seems a bit odd how resting results on consuming such a huge amount of energy.
As a matter of fact, in this mode brain activates old memories, past thoughts, current desires, ideas and many more. It seems that when we rest physically, our mind works at full speed.
We become self-aware and imagine the future, leading to improved decision making. Not only that, but you can imagine yourself in other people’s shoes, trying to understand how they feel, which will lead to becoming more collaborative and understanding.
Unfocus allows us to rethink all our steps, plans and acts before getting back to the real world. It helps us sum up impressions, update information and most importantly – reach the deep parts of our minds.
The focus is truly one of the greatest abilities we have, but it’s worth almost nothing if we don’t learn how to wander away eventually, relax and prepare for the next task.
We should learn to preserve focus for when it’s necessary so it could be used more effectively.
NEGATIVE FACTORS THAT AFFECT CONCENTRATION
The ability to concentrate allows us to do incredible things, but only when it works right. Unfortunately, distractions that grab our focus are not as obvious as we think, making us blame ourselves for losing control.
People with bad focus tend to think they’re not trying hard enough to keep attention in place, but this isn’t the case.
The only way to improve your focus is by taking actions to make improvements in a particular brain function that maintains attention.
You need to learn how to make just the right conditions in order to be able to focus on the given task. This is why we’ll explain how some major factors affect concentration.
Focus can be easily ruined by poor nutrition, especially when it comes to weight loss diet.
The worst are low-fat products that don’t provide the brain with some important fatty acids.
Even low-protein food is bad since amino acids that proteins contain are used to create key brain chemicals that help with concentration.
Also, your focus and concentration can get worse after not taking enough vitamins B and D, minerals such as iron, etc.
The worst distraction we’ve all noticed once in a while is craving for food. We know that hunger has dozens of negative effects including energy drop.
Hunger can cause low blood sugar, leading to decreased energy levels. Low energy = no ability to concentrate.
Not drinking water regularly causes a lot of trouble, including the loss of focus.
Besides, all the symptoms dehydration causes lead to a poor mood which will obviously affect the concentration level.
Some experts suggest that having at least 1% lower than necessary hydration could lead to a lack of concentration.
These changes mostly affect women since they usually happen during pregnancy and menopause. In fact, it is considering one of the biggest symptoms of menopause by many medical experts.
Lack of Sleep
Believe it or not, this one is crucial.
Because, if you don’t get the right amount of sleep only one night, you’re disturbing your inner thought processes by slowing them down, leading to poor alertness over the day.
Sleepy people even have trouble remembering things which makes tasks even harder to complete and kills the ability to focus. Not enough sleep also ruins one key part of focusing – a working memory.
Stress that becomes chronic will have very negative effects on concentration by disturbing the key cognitive functions. No brain can focus well if it’s overwhelmed, no matter if the stress was caused by the job, relationship, financial or any other issue.
People who get mentally exhausted on a daily basis struggle to keep their concentration, leading to bad communication and collaboration with those around them. Eventually, that will cause even more stress.
HOW TO IMPROVE AND EXTEND ATTENTION SPAN
The brain is so amazing that it led us to the moon and back, cured the worst diseases, ended wars, built the pyramids, but it can’t stand doing something for 5 minutes without checking the phone.
Well, how do we resist such an urge for entertainment, especially when we’re supposed to do something not so attention-worthy?
Instead of blaming technology, put the blame on your brain. The brain is the one responsible for your desires.
Fortunately, it can be trained to keep the focus on the task you have ahead. How? We suggest adding some changes to your daily habits, which we’ll explain right below.
Make a Strategic Schedule
The easiest way of finding your flow is creating a plan for the upcoming period.
You’ll need a schedule to be prepared for the future tasks and things you’ve planned but will most probably forget.
We recommend starting a week with a list of obligations and important tasks that should be completed within the next 7 days.
This will give you a chance to work out every detail before you even get started, which will reduce potential mistakes and stress levels.
Having more things written down means having fewer things in your head.
Accordingly, there will be fewer things to focus on at once, allowing you to give full attention to the most important task.
Doing more than one activity at once means you’ll need to share your attention among the tasks equally, not leaving enough time to focus on every task as much as it’s needed. You’ll have to switch the focus all the time, finishing things only partly.
As a result, you’ll make more mistakes than you would by doing all of them separately.
And contrary to the popular belief, the amount of time you spend finishing these tasks won’t decrease since you’ll have trouble adapting your focus every minute or less.
We believe there is nothing an exercise cannot fix. It doesn’t only strengthen your body, but it does the same to your brain.
Exercising also increases the amount of oxygen your brain gets, which has a positive effect on the chemicals in your brain responsible for keeping attention.
Many people use coffee as fuel during the day, especially when they start feeling a bit tired.
We drink this magical liquid thinking we’re reviving ourselves at least until the task is done.
But the truth is – we’re making it worse.
In order to function well, the brain needs real rest and caffeine does not provide it.
When the attention starts falling down, only rest can help it get back up.
Change the environment for a moment. Go out to stretch your legs during work or go get a snack. Anything that breaks the routine can be considered a rest for your brain. Let the thoughts wander for a few minutes.
A good way of focus improving is training your attention mentally. This can be done by meditating since it makes your brain keep the attention and keep the thoughts from wandering away. A good meditation has the same effects on your brain as weightlifting has on the muscles.
A good technique requires focusing on breath only. If the mind tries to send you some memories and ideas, push them away by controlling your breath.
If you can’t keep your mind clear for a long time, start with just one minute a day. As you start improving, increase the meditation time for a few minutes every time.
Listen to the Music
Whether you enjoy modern pop or find yourself more relaxed while resting with classical music, use this powerful tool to relax the brain muscle and restore concentration ability.
Leave Your Phone
If you can’t change your brain to get better focus, change your behavior and habits.
Forget about Facebook and other social media that get you distracted from what you do. Start with turning off the notifications for apps that disturb you the most while working.
In other words, when it’s necessary to focus, there is no room for entertainment.
The environment should be as boring as possible with nothing interesting to grab your attention.
As the phone is the biggest distraction of all for most of us, it’s best to keep it out of the room until the task is completed.
Having your devices far from you won’t prevent you from thinking of it, but let’s consider you’re lazy enough to stop what you do and get up to check them.
Determine Which Part of the Day is the Most Productive
Every single person has that time of the day when they’re the most productive.
Naturally, it’s a different time for every one of us.
At the time you feel the least tired, you’ll feel your attention rising. Use that period to finish the essential tasks which require more focus and precision.
Some people even keep a pen and paper right next to their bed so they can write ideas they get while trying to fall asleep. Try this trick as well as the rest. You never know when will the next billion-dollar idea come.
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