How To Train Your Brain To Pay Attention
Our brains are on overload and drowning in a sea of information.
With the growth of the infinite internet, 500 channel 24-hour television, and mobile phones that are really little computers, you now receive five times as much information every day as a person did in 1986. According to Welcome to the information age:
Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.
Your brain’s neurons need oxygen and glucose to survive, and all this information uses up your brain’s energy. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get or send is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether you get that report done, remembering to call the credit card company about that strange charge, or figuring out how to smooth things over with your sweetie after a spat last night.
While a great deal of information processing occurs below your conscious awareness, it still impacts how you feel and think, and there are times when you really need and want to pay attention, but just can’t.
The ability to pay attention varies and is a factor of mental health and in mental illness.
According to the CDC as of 2011, 6.4 million American children between the ages of seven and fourteen (11%) and about 4% of American adults were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with the numbers rising at shocking rates.
Regardless of whether you think ADHD is a brain-based disorder or a matter of discipline, paying attention is becoming a lost art these days.
How Attention Happens In Your Brain
Attention can be mapped to specific brain regions involved in selecting and sustaining focus, and every one of us has a unique attentional dimension, just one component of what Richard Davidson calls our signature “Emotional Styles” in his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them. The brain’s parietal cortex is like the steering wheel pointing its focus in a general direction and zeroing in on a particular target. The prefrontal cortex then kicks into action and is responsible for holding your attention (or not) on that spot.
When focusing is problematic, the prefrontal cortex is under active, and your attention is stimulus driven with everything around you catching your eye and turning your head. Improving attention is a matter of increasing the activity of and strengthening the connections between the prefrontal and parietal cortices.
Working Your Attention Muscles
Just as you can work out to build up muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills through meditation. One study showed that three months of meditation practice support the notion that mental training can significantly affect attention and brain function. One type of meditation in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Here’s how you do it:
- Sit comfortably, with your eyes open, in a quiet room free of distractions. Find an external, visual object on which to focus, such as a single carpet thread, a door knob, a button on your shirt, or a candle flame – not your breath, a mental visualization, or a mantra.
- Keep your eyes glued to that one object and all your attention focused on it.
- When your mind strays from the object, and it most definitely will, gently guide it back to the subject again and again.
Davidson suggest practicing daily for ten minutes and increasing the practice time as needed when you find your focus improving.
Some people actually have the opposite problem of being too focused. You know – this would be that person who is so into what they’re doing that they don’t even hear you talking to them or someone who is so locked onto one aspect of something that they can’t see the big picture. You probably have a friend or two like this or you may even be the one. In the case of hyper-focusing, a person’s attentional circuit in their brain is too active and needs to be calmed down.
You can relax this attentional grip also by practicing a similar mediation, in reverse. In open-presence mediation, a person trains to broaden their attention to take in more of the world, without focusing on any particular object. Instead, they train to cultivate an awareness of awareness itself.
You’ll first want to practice and become comfortable with a basic meditation, such as breath meditation, and then, move on to open-presence meditation:
- Sit comfortably, eyes relaxed, half-open or closed, in a quiet room.
- Maintain a clear awareness of and openness to your surroundings, but not focusing on any one particular thing.
- Become aware of, but don’t think about, whatever arises in your consciousness – thoughts, noises, images, sensations, feelings, tastes. You simply want to observe them without exploring, commenting on, rejecting, or engaging with them. Be totally open but don’t let anything affect you.
- When you find your mind moving towards something, unlike in focused attention meditation, allow it to turn to it and become aware of it as disinterestedly as possible. In this exercise you aren’t aiming to redirect your mind when it wanders. You’re simply paying attention to whatever presents itself.
Davidson suggests practicing for five to ten minutes a day and reports that many practitioners of this meditation find that they develop a kind of panoramic awareness. EEG studies conducted by Davidson showed that when people practiced open-monitoring meditation, their brain waves became modulated so that they were more receptive to outside stimuli. He explains it like this:
If you toss a rock into a still lake, you can see the ripples very clearly; but if the lake is turbulent, you’ll have trouble making out the change produced by the rock.
A Word About Multitasking
Multitasking is a myth. While your brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it literally cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once. If someone appears to be an adept multitasker, they are really showing good use of working memory. Studies show that a person takes longer to complete a task when interrupted and makes about four times more errors. It becomes much easier to switch back and forth with fewer errors when the tasks are familiar.
Your brain is a sequential processor and no matter how much multitasking is forced and valued in our society, research clearly shows that it decreases productivity while increasing mistakes.
The bottom line is slow down, turn distractions off, tune in, and work on building your attention. You and your brain will be happier.