What Science tells us about a Focused Mind and how to get that?

Do you remember the story of hare and tortoise?

The story where the tortoise competes with the hare in a run. The tortoise moved very slowly and the hare was very fast. The hare thought to take a nap after seeing the tortoise way behind him. Finally, the tortoise won and the hare was sleeping even then.

I thought the hare lost due to his arrogance and the tortoise won because of its persistence. However, what I never realized was, the tortoise needed a tremendous amount of focus to persist in the race.

We all know the importance of having a focused mind in life. A distracted mind is like a football match where there is no goalpost, players have no idea where to goal. They are just running here and there.

But the bad news is, most of us have a distracted mind rather than having a focused mind. Our attention span (amount of concentrated time a person can spend without becoming distracted) is decreasing every year.

According to research, Our attention span has markedly decreased in just 15 years. In the year 2000 average attention span was 12 seconds and in the year 2015, it has reduced to just 8.25 seconds. In terms of attention span, we humans are now behind goldfish which has 9 seconds of attentiveness.

So why are we losing our attention span?

If you just search in Google about ‘Focus’ you will get thousands of articles about why focus is important and how to achieve that? However, most of them I found very surface level articles. Most of them suggest don’t overuse your smartphone, do meditation, sleep properly, etc. All these are true but when I wanted to dig deeper into the topic things became much more clear and unambiguous.

I want to share with you my findings on what is responsible for our decreasing attention span and how to regain the focused mind?

Neurologists classified attention as two types-involuntary attention and voluntary or directed attention.

What do these terms mean?

Involuntary attention refers to attention which requires no effort, such as when something exciting or interesting happens. For example, when you suddenly see a snake at the street, your attention automatically goes to towards the snake. You require no extra effort to give attention to the snake.

On the contrary, when you require effort to pay attention to something which may not be interesting to you is known as voluntary or directed attention. You need to direct your attention here, it doesn’t happen automatically. For example, when you study, exercise or write an article, you need a great deal of effort to keep your attention. Reading, writing, exercise may not be always interesting to you. So here you need to direct your attention.

Involuntary attention is an excellent adaptive force for humans, as it automatically directs your attention towards the most important or exciting thing at that moment and even alerts you from danger. Imagine how useful involuntary attention was for earlier humans in jungles. They were able to protect themselves from the dangers of the jungle due to involuntary attention capability.

But sadly, in the modern world, we use involuntary attention against our own interest. Today, what is interesting is not important and what is important is not interesting.

Images were important in earlier days to recognize things but today they are hijacked by media manager and advertisers. Images no longer capture our involuntary attention. Again what we think is important in life (such as exercise, reading or acquiring any skill) is most often not interesting to us. Thus involuntary attention is longer that useful to us compared to what it used to be for our ancestors.

Thus voluntary or directed attention becomes the only tool to fulfill our purposes.

However, our ability of directed attention is limited. It’s a limited resource (cognitive resource). That’s why your concentration levels are not same throughout the day. If you do something in the morning which requires a tremondous amount of concentration then you will find it difficult to concentrate in the afternoon/evening. How you utilize this limited cognitive resource throughout the day determines how productive your day will be.

The good news is, although voluntary or directed attention is limited, you can replenish it via doing some simple activity.

Probably, the most important thing to know would be- how and where we waste our directed attention? If we can conserve and replenish our directed focus, we will be able to accomplish more and less time.

So where do we waste our directed attention ability?

1. Mindless Entertainment:

What usually you do in your free time, like when you return from work?

If you are like most people, I assume you start browsing your social media accounts, watch Youtube/Netflix or television to chill. We think we are relaxing by doing these activities. Even I used to think so but nothing could be further from the truth.

I knew a lot of people call television a cartoon box but I was really astonished by the studies, which shows the hampering effects watching television has on our ability to concentrate. Not only that, watching TV or Youtube for a longer time prevent to replenish our voluntary attention which is necessary to focus on a job as I discussed above.

One might say, watching television require only involuntary attention, which means you don’t need any effort to watch TV, it just happens naturally.

Then how watching TV/Youtube reduces our cognitive resource (voluntary attention)?

Just because something requires our involuntary attention, that doesn’t mean it can’t drain our cognitive resources. You require some voluntary attention while watching T. V also. Consider the case when there is a movie channel and a sports channel, you have to make a deliberate choice about which one to watch. There could be conflicting situations. Thus it’s not completely effortless.

One particular exert from a research paper by Kaplan and Berman (2010) point it out beautifully-

“Television is, as Mander (1978) so effectively points out, exquisitely designed to discourage one from leaving the channel one is watching. In other words, television creates attentional capture. One indication that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs is that a large percent of television watchers
wish that they could spend less time watching (Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Thus, the very act of watching would be likely to create a conflict situation. One indication that this is the case is that the longer people watch television, the more irritable they become. Thus the very activity that
many people think of as recreational is in fact increasing mental fatigue rather than reducing it.”

Guilt about watching TV is very common. Most people watch TV more than they intend to. Further studies suggest-

‘‘ . . . people reported feeling relatively less relaxed, happy, and satisfied after viewing than after the other activities studied’’

Therefore watching TV is a counterproductive means of restoring directed attention. And the same thing happens when you play video games hour after hour or browse social media for hours. All these suck our mental energy.

Now the question is if not to watch TV or browse social media then what to do instead in free times? which brings the second point

2. Replenish your voluntary attention via Nature:

According to research, one activity which has the magical ability to replenish our focus is natural environments (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan, 1995).

This means simply taking a walk around natural environments like garden, lake, forest, beach or any natural scenario can bring back our ability to concentrate.

The reason viewing nature restores our voluntary attention is because this activity has high levels of soft fascination.

Soft fascination is a psychology term used to describe activities that capture our involuntary attention without utilizing our voluntary attention abilities.

Natural Environment

When we see nature, it captures our attention so minimally that it allows our mind to wander onto other thoughts. Natural environments are capable of attracting involuntary attention without interfering with other thoughts.

However, urban places are not ideal places to do this activity. Imagine you are walking through a busy street in a city. Starting from hoardings to banners of different advertisements to traffic, everything will steal will attention. We don’t call it natural environment right!

So whenever you have free time just take a walk in the nearest park or garden, observe nature closely. You will be surprised how in a quick span of time you can regain your ability to focus.

Another important thing we must do in order to conserve as well as utilize our potential to focus at it’s fullest. It’s more of an emotional rather than a physical thing. And that is-

3. Resolve your internal noise first then try to focus:

Suppose two people are running in a race. One is running with 20 kg weight with him and another one is running without any weight. Who will run faster?

It’s obvious the person without any weight will run faster. Same is the case for our ability to focus. You cannot focus on a job if you have unresolved issues in relationships, work or in anything. Carrying extra baggage of unsettled issues in mind is never a good idea when you try to concentrate.

Therefore, these unresolved problems could create a kind of internal noise that would lead to excessive demands on directed attention.

So what to do in such cases?

Resolve confusing issues in your mind. Research suggests that-

“writing about one’s feelings and experiences can have therapeutic value by
promoting reflection and limiting brooding. In addition, such writing may also reduce the inclination to suppress the thoughts and feelings that lead to stress.”

Write down your unresolved issues on a piece of paper. It will declutter your mind. If you have done something wrong and it can be corrected, then correct it first. Talk to your loved ones about your problems, seek their help. Make time to reflect on your problems which bothers you, in constructive ways.

Trying to work forcefully with problems in your mind is emotionally unhealthy and it’s not good even from the viewpoint of voluntary attention. Once you take care of your internal noises, you will feel much lighter just like that weightless runner. Your mind will be at peace and will be able to focus in a much better way.

What’s the conclusion of this article?

Proper quality sleep is indispensable to have a focused mind. Meditation also helps to achieve such a mind. But most importantly we must be aware of the activities which drain our mental energy most. We must know how we can replenish our lost mental energy. We are in a time when everyone including that author, anchor, newspaper, social media site or that multinational company wants to capture our attention. Our mental energy is, therefore, the most valuable asset we have. We must utilize it in a fruitful way to make our lives better, happier, fulfilled one.

Steve Jobs

Have a productive week. Until next time.- Joy

Source:

  1. Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation.
  2. The Strength Model of Self-Control
  3. Image Credit
  4. Karim Elsheikh- How to improve focus

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