Have you been having trouble staying focused this winter? If so, there might be a legitimate reason to explain why your brain is so foggy: A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that it's actually harder to concentrate during the winter months. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Liège in Belgium, isolated 28 participants in a lab for four and a half days in order to see how their levels of concentration and memory were affected outside of normal seasonal and weather conditions — and although the sample size is small, the results suggest that the seasons do affect how well we're able to focus.
During the four-and-a-half-day period over which the study was conducted, the participants were given no access to the outside world, thus ensuring that they'd have pretty much no sense of time. They were also told to stick to a regulated sleep schedule before entering the experiment and were then subsequently deprived of sleep over the course of the study. To study the participants' brain activity, the researchers monitored them using fMRI scans while they performed tasks related to attention and memory. The research team also conducted this same experiment model several times during different seasons to see if there was any difference in performance that could be attributed to the overarching climate conditions happening outside.
Indeed, the season does seem to affect our levels of concentration and memory: The researchers found that the participants' brains were best able to perform activities that require sustained attention during the summer months, and that their brains were at their worst levels of concentration during the winter. In terms of recall, their memory was the most accurate during the fall and the least accurate during the spring months.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind when examining the results of this study. First, the researchers found that for almost all of the other areas of brain functioning, the season didn't have an effect on the participants' abilities. Second, this was both a very small study and a preliminary one, so a lot more research is needed before we can draw wide-reaching conclusions about how the seasons affect our concentration and memory.
If, though, you're finding it hard to concentrate during the winter, here are a few ways you can improve your focus and concentration.
1. Be Present
Instead of trying to multitask, Neel Burton, M.D. suggests shutting off all distractions to improve your sense of focus. It turns out that our brains are not good at multitasking — so trying to watch TV as you write a paper, being on Instagram during a meeting, or listen to music while you're reviewing a report might be a recipe for concentration failure.
2. Set Aside Time To Worry
Instead of thinking in the background of meetings or lectures about all of your troubles, set aside a set period each day dedicated solely to thinking about the things that are worrying you. Studies have shown that those who set aside time to worry actually worry 35 percent less than those of us who don't, according to the University of Kansas, so the benefits are myriad.
3. Stay Hydrated
A 2012 study found that even small levels of dehydration — ones that are so subtle that you don't even realize they're happening — your ability to concentrate is seriously compromised. "When the brain detects even the smallest changes in physiology, it may begin operating at a suboptimal level to get your attention," study coauthor Harris Lieberman, PhD, told the Huffington Post about their findings. Keep water close to you while you're working, so that you remember to keep drinking.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Having trouble concentrating can often be due to being sleep deprived, so if you're not getting seven to nine hours per night, that could be the culprit of your inability to focus. Vatsal G. Takkar, MD, told the Huffington Post, "If you're regularly dipping below seven hours, you're likely cutting into the delta phase [of sleep], and this can make it difficult to focus when you're awake." If you are getting a enough sleep but are still having trouble concentrating, it might be time to get yourself to a specialist.
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