You can think of your attention as your brain’s steering wheel. Wherever your attention goes, the rest of your brain follows. It is the gate through which all sensory information enters your conscious experience. Because of this, it influences your perception, and, in turn, your mental health. With the media pushing head-turner headlines at us non-stop these days, a lot of what you take into your brain is negative which contributes to stress, anxiety, and depression.
What your brain registers — even subconsciously — changes your ability to pay attention and your perception. And it does it fast. In experiments, it only took 170 milliseconds. When researchers flashed disturbing, negative images of suffering and violence, like the ones you see in the media every day, participants’ ability to pay attention diminished. For a detailed explanation of what has to happen in your brain for you to pay attention, read here.
You can improve your brain and mental health by learning to consciously direct your attention. It is possible to build stronger, more selective, and stable attention. Here’s how.
You’re Not Paying Attention About Half of the Time
Believe it or not, studies showed that your mind is not engaged with what is right in front of you 47 percent of the time. That is distressing enough to me in my ordinary life where the consequences just mean I’m unproductive. (At least now, I know why!) But think about that where the repercussions could be serious. That means surgeons, airplane pilots, and judges are not paying attention for about half of the time. That is scary!
The research, by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, is described in the journal Science. Killingsworth and Gilbert write:
A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
The research tells us that mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of happiness. In fact, how often a person’s mind leaves the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of happiness than the activities they actually engage in. Science shows that about half of your happiness is under your conscious control. You can influence your happiness and mental health in a big way simply by building your ability to sustain and guide your attention.
Methods to Improve Your Attention
Stop Trying to Multi-Task
Multi-tasking is a myth. The idea of multitasking was originally used to describe a computer’s parallel processing capabilities and has become shorthand for our brains attempting to do many things simultaneously. However, your brain doesn’t work that way. Even when you think you’re multitasking, you’re not. Our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when people think they’re multitasking is that they’re shifting their attention back and forth and utilizing short-term memory. Studies show that when your brain is constantly switching between tasks, you become less efficient and more likely to make a mistake.
The opposite of a stressed and wandering mind is a mindful one. Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It has to do with being aware and being aware of your awareness. It’s training your brain to focus and notice what’s happening as it’s happening. It’s learning to direct your attention to your present experience.
Mindfulness is not just a concept. It’s an active practice. In your brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system, the ancient instinctual, emotional brain, to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of your brain is where your more complex cognitive processes take place. This is also where mindfulness happens. The middle of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, is highly integrated and literally one synapse away from the cortex, limbic area, and brain stem. That’s crucial because it allows the frontal cortex to influence the other brain regions. In other words, it can insert rational thinking, calm them down, and take control.
Just like you can work out to build muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build attention skills with meditation. One study showed that just three months of meditation practice significantly affected attention and brain function. One type of meditation, in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Go here to learn how you do it.
The benefits of meditation and mindfulness for your brain are because of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the capability of your brain to change its form and function in response to experience. Over time, consistently practicing meditation or mindful thinking resets your brain patterns and default mode network (DFM) because you are repetitively altering the way you use your brain. This is how you physically change your brain to be healthier and happier.
The Harvard Health article, Focus on concentration, offers the following additional suggestions:
Stop distractions. Change items in your living space that grab your attention, such as equipment that produces distracting sounds or lights. Also, turn off notifications on your phone when you need to concentrate, and set up website blockers so you won’t be tempted by the Internet.
Work in blocks of time. Much research has suggested that working in small chunks of time, with rest periods in between, can help with focus, since our attention tends to wane after a certain period. How long that time period lasts depends on the person. Some studies that have looked at work and classroom performance place the range anywhere from 10 minutes to 52 minutes. Experiment with a time frame that works for you. “You should be able to find a range where your attention is at its peak,” says Dr. Salinas.
Engage your brain. Do more activities that involve using your executive function skills. “You want to take up something that stimulates and requires mental effort, but not so much that it overwhelms and dissuades you,” says Dr. Salinas. He suggests something that teaches a new skill, such as painting, cooking, dancing, or learning a language. “These require focus and attention, but are set up to show progress and offer encouragement. They can also help reduce stress.”
Review your medication. Some drugs, especially those used to treat sleep problems, anxiety, or pain, can make you feel drowsy or fatigued. Note any connection between taking medication and difficulties with attention, and speak with your doctor about amending your dosage or switching medication.
Watch caffeine and sugar intake. Sudden spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels can affect attention, says Dr. Salinas. “In general, focusing on eating more fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods while avoiding simple sugars can be enough to keep your blood sugar levels more even,” he says. While a small amount of caffeine can give you a short-term mental boost, too much can overstimulate you and make you feel anxious or giddy, and affect your ability to stay focused. Keep track of when and how your attention changes after you drink caffeinated beverages so you can make adjustments to your daily intake.
Stay social. Social engagement protects against loneliness, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and stress, all of which can affect attention. “Being more social also helps with focus, since you have to listen to conversations and retain information,” says Dr. Salinas.
I also really like this TED talk by Dr. Amishi Jha: