We've all fantasized, usually under extreme deadline pressure, about working with huge focus on one particular task for hours without ever getting distracted. Unfortunately, our brains aren't geared that way: they love daydreaming, distraction, and novelty, which is likely why Angry Birds and Twitter are so endlessly popular. But science is increasingly discovering that we can actually interfere with the ways in which our brains handle focus and concentration, in order to make ourselves a bit more efficient and a bit less likely to drift off into wondering about lunch.
The neuroscience of concentration isn't an uncomplicated field. Experts have disagreements about the roles of music, background noise, and other potential distractions in brain efficiency — but there are interesting paths to explore, even if we don't fully understand or agree on them all yet. The exciting bit is that a lot of focusing has to do with establishing habits — I know this myself; I'm a Concentration Robot, capable of looking at the same thing for hours without getting distracted, but that's PhD training, not innate awesome focusing ability. (Pro tip: Do not do a PhD just to teach yourself how to concentrate.)
Here are seven different ways to hack your concentration abilities, using neuroscience and a little bit of genetic fiddling (OK, that one's still in process, but maybe one day).
1. Get An App To Curb Your Multitasking Addiction
If you can't stop yourself from trying to do many things at once, it's not because you're easily distracted. It turns out that, for at least some of us, multitasking gives us a kind of rush similar to addictive substances. Research from Harvard indicates that multitasking actually provides a rush of the chemical dopamine, a compound that plays a huge role in the regulation of the brain's "pleasure centers". The researchers themselves, as management consultancy firm McKinsey discussed in an investigation of the problem, called it the "dopamine squirt": a small spurt of pleasure that rewards what is effectively poor and inefficient behavior. We get dopamine squirts when we have orgasms, eat chocolate, win bets, and feed addictions.
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, writing in The Guardian , goes further. "Multitasking," he explains, "creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new — the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens." So you're not weak or prone to distraction: your brain is just enticed into multitasking by a perpetual search for new fun things.
If you're particularly prone to multitasking and can't seem to break the habit, use a time regulation app like the Pomodoro Technique, which divides your time scrupulously and won't let you cheat, or RescueTime, which focuses on restricting online distractions, to hack your brain into better habits. Over time, the practice will become easier as your brain adapts.
2. Practice Zen Meditation Regularly
This is a fascinating one: anecdotal wisdom has discussed the advantages of meditation for concentration for ages, but a 2012 study of 12 Zen meditators found that there are indeed significant brain differences in proficient meditation practitioners that help them concentrate effectively. The meditators, all of whom had been practicing serious meditation for at least three years, had their brain MRIs compared with non-meditators, and the results were very interesting: the meditators had a lot more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex, the part of the brain responsible for wandering thoughts, and could perform better on tasks requiring focussed attention. The research builds on a 2010 study that found meditators could achieve more "sustained attention" on things and objects.
The thing that helps here? Consistency and repetition: if you keep doing Zen meditation, a particular kind of meditation exclusive to Zen Buddhism, for a long period, it seems to physically change your brain. There's a good app called Buddhify that can help introduce you to the practice.
3. Eliminate Background Noise
How much background noise is too much? Professor Mark A. W. Andrews told Scientific American that unfocused noise, like "white noise," is actually harmful for the body's stress reactions as well as the brain's ability to concentrate. The stress of constant background noise, he explains, "induce[s] the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex — an emotional learning center that helps to regulate “executive” functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control.... Changes to this region, therefore, may disrupt a person’s capacity to think clearly and to retain information."
We find background noise stressful, apparently, because we've evolved to try and subconsciously evaluate the threat level of every sound in our vicinity, and that distracts and distresses our brains. Sound pollution: bad for concentration, at least at high levels. If you're in a work environment, try to find a way to soundproof your office, or work with earplugs; if you're at home, turn off radios, televisions and position yourself as far away from possible noise interruptions as possible. Wax earplugs, like those produced by Quies, are the best in the game.
4. Use The Right Kind Of Musical Distractions
Considering everything we've just learnt about the stressful side of background noise, it may surprise you that there's science concerning auditory distraction as a way to enhance concentration. A particular range of products, like the music company Focus@Will, aim to enhance the concentration levels of the brain by refining sensory inputs, particularly via music. Research has shown that performance and attention can be enhanced by particular music, without lyrics, sudden shifts in tone or tempo, or emotional responses — bland music, in other words. The balance apparently lies between maintaining the focus of the brain and providing it with sufficient novel stimuli to feed its innate distraction-craving.
And it's not a new thing: neurosurgeons apparently often use music to aid their concentration in deeply intricate operations. The ideal music will be devoid of anything that can snap you out of your attentive state, so it'll likely be mild, without lyrics, and very well-known. Famous classical pieces and music you've known for ages are likely your best bets.
5. Chew Gum
We're not entirely sure why, but a 2013 study of 40 people found that gum-chewing might actually help us concentrate and retain information. Twenty of the people chewed gum and 20 didn't, but they were all exposed to the same half-hour recording and asked to remember and repeat various parts of it. The ones chewing gum reacted faster and did better on the test about the recording: the scientists called it "moderating the vigilance decrement," which is the official term for decline in concentration over time when doing a task. They thought that it was possible that gum-chewing increased blood flow to the parts of the brain that control focus, but the jury's still out on that one.
6. Forget Previous Tasks
One of the biggest problems with maintaining concentration, apparently, is something called "attention residue": what happens if you move onto a new task but keep thinking, in some small way, about the old one. The phrase comes from Professor Sophie Leroy, whose work, reports New York Magazine , found that switching between tasks constantly led to less productivity overall in modern workplaces. Bustle looked at this in detail back in January, but the key to kicking attention residue to the curb is apparently putting something away when you put it away, as opposed to worrying about it for six more hours.
Trying to clear your head briefly (by meditating, perhaps) before starting a new task, or having a small break may help break up this residue, but if you're conscious that thoughts from the old task are intruding, go back to it for a bit to address your concerns if possible.
7. Get Scientists To Control Your Concentration With Light (One Day)
This may be the future of giving yourself more concentration powers: a kind of brain-hacking using science, cells, and light. I've written about optogenetics before, but essentially, it's the use of light to control certain cells in animals and humans — and this technique seems to be showing promise for directing the attention of the brain by manipulating particular neurons.
The New York Times took a look at the process in 2009, when two major studies had just been published in Nature and Neuron, using it on mice and monkeys. Basically, the researchers in both studies were trying to control something in the brain called "gamma waves," signals sent by neurons in the prefrontal cortex to get the brain to pay attention to one thing and not another. The Nature study found that scientists could actually induce these gamma rhythms in mice with light on certain cells, and that the process could control how the mice reacted to stimuli. It's a long way off, but one day we might be able to go in for light neuron therapy before an all-night study session.
Images: Mindful Media/E+/Getty Images; Giphy
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