Sometimes our brains just don’t want to play ball. Whether it’s an inability to concentrate, a tendency to forget where we left our keys, or a mental block on that final crossword clue, there are times when our minds seem to have – well – a mind of their own.
Like any machine, our brains can sometimes benefit from a tune-up, and we’ve collected the latest thinking around six key areas of cognition, and provide some practical, science-backed tips on how to keep your mental cogs running smoothly.
From broad beam to laser focused, it’s your flexible friend.
We’ve all experienced that irritating feeling of being distracted from the task at hand. But don’t be too hard on your butterfly mind: our brains have evolved, for good reason, to be distractible. We prize an ability to concentrate, but we need our attention to be flexible. If we focused too tightly we’d miss the creaking floorboard that signifies an intruder, or the whiff of smoke that announces fire.
Attention has proven to be much more complicated, and weirder, than it seems. If you look closely at something – a photo of a landscape, say – you probably feel that you are noticing everything when, in fact, you’re taking in just a few bits at a time. This is because the more you concentrate, the narrower your view becomes. Inattentional blindness, as this is known, has spawned dozens of demonstrations.
The most famous is a video of a group of people passing a basketball to each other. As the passes continue, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the group and beats his chest before slowly walking off. If you show the video to people who’ve never seen it before and instruct them beforehand to watch the ball closely, nearly all of them fail to see the gorilla because it falls outside the laser beam of their attention.
Multitasking has also taken a knock in the lab. Recent research at Princeton University has shown that the feeling of attending to more than one thing at once is a delusion – what’s actually happening is that our brains are rapidly switching back and forth from one thing to another. Even when we concentrate on a single task, our attention disengages several times a second, as our brains check that nothing important is happening elsewhere. This creates split-second gaps in our focus. When we try to multitask, these gaps tend to get so large that we don’t do any of the tasks well. That’s why driving while using a phone is so dangerous.
Physically, attention is marked by neural activity in the brain areas concerned with the object of attention. If you’re listening to music, for instance, neurons will be sparking in your auditory cortex (near the ears). If you’re studying a picture, there will be activity in your visual brain (at the rear of the head). Areas in the parietal brain lobes (upper rear of the brain) direct attention in three-dimensional space. The more you’re focusing on something, the more intense and persistent the activity. So-called gamma brainwaves, produced by neurons firing more than 25 times per second, signify intense focus, while slower brainwaves show more diffused, meandering attention.
The rear of the parietal lobe is particularly important for attention because it directs your focus, like a hand guiding the beam of a torch. Damage to this area can make a person effectively blind to whole chunks of the world – everything in the left half of their visual field, for example. Although they can see what’s there, they don’t because it doesn’t attract their attention. They only see it when someone else forces them to attend to it.
But attention-related blindness is something that we all experience to a lesser degree, and it can reach into every area of our lives. People may be blithely unaware that they live in a filthy house, that someone loves or hates them, that they always wear odd socks or that their partner is cheating on them. Such ignorance may be bliss, but it can lead to disaster. Focusing on the task at hand is an important skill to learn, but sometimes it can be just as important to broaden our field of attention.
Tune up your attention
- Make a chart of your life, divided into sections such as work, family, health and so on. Go over it regularly, considering whether anything needs attention in each area. If it does, mark that section until you have done it. Aim to keep the chart clear. By looking broadly at your life, you’ll be able to make sure that you’re not focusing on one area to the detriment of others.
- Read, watch or listen to something new every day. The unfamiliar subject matter will stimulate underused brain areas, making these brain cells easier to activate again in future, and helping to increase your overall attention.
- Take short breaks from tasks that need prolonged attention. When we’re doing the same thing for a long time, the brain interprets the continuous stimulus as increasingly unimportant, and becomes more prone to distraction.
- Do physical exercise before doing anything that needs close attention. A study from the University of Illinois found that nine-year-olds focused better after 20 minutes of walking on a treadmill than after 20 minutes of rest. Measurements of their brain activity post-exercise showed a pattern that has previously been associated with focused attention.