Our ability to focus, to concentrate on one task or bit of information for any length of time, is one of the heaviest casualties of the digital age. According to a study performed by Microsoft Corp., a goldfish now has the ability to concentrate for a longer period of time (nine seconds) than a human being (about eight seconds). This is detrimental to our ability to achieve goals and to be generally productive.
The good news is that you absolutely can reverse this trend in your own life! If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have written a series of book reviews centering around the creation of good habits, achieving goals, and increasing your willpower. I’ve endeavored to use recent findings in psychology and neuroscience to provide you with the information you need to change your life in a practical way.
Daniel Goleman’s book Focus highlights many of the problems associated with a short attention span, and offers a look at what the latest science is telling us about reversing this trend. Goleman has written a number of excellent books centering around harnessing our potential, all from a scientific perspective.
IS TECHNOLOGY HELPING US?
It’s a fair question. Of course, technology has helped us in many domains; but one area where it has seemed to take us back a bit as a species is in our ability to focus, and to connect with other human beings. As Goleman writes, “Today’s children are growing up in a new reality, one where they are attuning more to machines and less to people than has ever been true in human history.”
There are many facets to this problem, but Goleman quotes the winner of the 1977 Nobel, economist Herbert Simon, who predicted our current conundrum when he claimed that an over-abundance of information will consume “the attention of its recipients,” and that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Turns out, he was right on the money, and the research is confirming this.
In fact, Goleman relates in Focus that some researchers suspect that the statistical rise in obesity is a direct result, or at least correlated with, the recent rise in technology, not just because we need to do less, but because of the loss in self-control that a flood of information can bring.
“Overloading your attention,” Goleman writes, “shrinks mental control.” In fact, researchers now believe they have evidence that more data can actually lead to a bad decision, because we become too cognitively overwhelmed.
JUST WHAT IS FOCUS, ANYWAY?
Goleman defines focus as “selective attention, the neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli, each one a potential focus in itself.” The power to shut out the various sensory imputs, and even our own distracting thoughts, is what allows us to complete tasks, to concentrate on what we are learning, and even to fully appreciate works of art and music.
It turns out that focus isn’t just the ability to beam our awareness on something, but also the ability to weed out all of the various sensory and emotional stimuli that assault us in every moment.
Goleman uses the example of reading a text: when you concentrate on the string of words on a page, making sense out of them and comprehending the author’s meaning, you are simultaneously ignoring the feeling of your back on the chair, the feeling of the smartphone in your hand, the sounds around you, and even the intrusion of thoughts generated by strong emotions.
In fact, Goleman writes that “the biggest challenge for even the most focused…comes from the emotional turmoil of our lives, like a recent blowup in a close relationship that keeps intruding into your thoughts.”
Given the emotional assault we suffer at the hands of the daily news, designed precisely to engage our emotions (in fact, constant emotional stress quickly erodes our willpower, and, as Kelly McGonigal discusses in her book The Willpower Instinct, this makes us more susceptible to advertisements and impulse buys), it’s important now more than ever to get a hold of our attentions spans, focus, and to try to see things as objectively as possible.
“Attention works much like a muscle–use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.” Later in this blog, we’ll look at some of the ways Goleman offers for strengthening our focus and preventing it from getting away from us.
A CLOSER LOOK AT ATTENTION
One useful way to look at the problem is to divide processes of the brain into roughly two categories: Bottom-up processes and Top-down processes.
The Bottom-up processes are doing the fast calculations, faster than our awareness is conscious of. It’s impulsive, intuitive, and it manages our mental images of the world. When we communicate, we don’t just use words, but gestures and motions as well–and this these are bottom-up processes.
The Top-down process is slower, but voluntary and requires effort. Goleman writes that it is the “seat of control, which can (sometimes) over power the automatic routines and mute emotionally driven impulses.” The Top-down process is able to learn new models and new plans.
This Top-down process, then, is what applies focus. To focus on something, we have to be consciously aware. When we meditate, for example, we are applying effort to, say, our breath. And as anyone who begins meditating can tell you, concentrating on your breath without fixating on mental or physical stimulus can be a frustrating experience.
THE THINGS WE FOCUS ON
Our emotions, says Goleman, “create skews and biases in our attention that we typically don’t notice, and don’t notice that we don’t notice.” We end up fixating on things to the exclusion of others. In an upcoming blog, I’ll reveal how our negative emotions quite literally blind us to the outside world; thinking negatively can actually shrink your perceptual awareness of physical reality!
Upsets in emotion are triggered by the amygdala, which forms part of the brain-stem and is sometimes called the “lizard brain” or “R-Complex.” This is the primitive, evolutionarily old part of the brain that we share with other animals.
Negative emotional upsets in focus lead to feelings of distress, and so we long to tune out with distraction. This is key to understanding a huge part of our modern malaise, because we tend to consume information with a negative spin rather than a positive one, and the corporate media is happy to provide us with that.
But, just as negative emotions help us to focus on the negative, positive emotions help us to see the positive in our lives. It turns out that a cultivation of gratitude is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, because it creates emotional resilience, and, as Goleman notes, “Emotional resilience comes down to how quickly we recover from upsets.” So, with effort, the prefrontal cortex can override the emotional disruptions and help us to stay focused.
In addition, writes Goleman, “when we are motivated by positive emotions, what we do feels more meaningful and the urge to act lasts longer. It all stays longer in attention.” It’s not just a platitude: there is massive power in positive thinking! With the amygdala not thrown into fight or flight mode due to undue emotional distress, positive thinking also helps us to focus on our goals and desires.
It turns out that positivity even opens our awareness of others; we can become more inclusive of those around us.
THE UPSIDE TO A WANDERING MIND
It turns out that a wandering brain isn’t all bad, because it allows you to grasp great insights that our floating just beyond on conscious grasp. Mind wandering can make us better at word play, gives us flashes of insight, and provides us with original ideas.
However, Goleman warns that once that flash of insight occurs, you must capitalize on it. You must shift to a laser like focus of attention and make use of your insight before it’s gone.
“A classic model of the stages of creativity roughly translates to three modes of focus: orienting, where we search out and immerse ourselves in all kinds of inputs; selection attention on the specific creative challenge; and open awareness, where we associate freely to let the solution emerge–then home in on the solution.”
The best kind of creative productivity, it would seems, is one that is balanced: “Creative insights flow best when people have clear goals but also freedom in how they reach those goals.”
As an interesting aside, one of the most interesting things I learned in Focus is that erratic eye movement actually signals a wandering mind: “wandering eyes indicate a breakdown in the connection between understanding and visual contact with the text, as the mind meanders elsewhere.”
We now know that our brain holds our deepest sense of purpose and meaning in specific locations that are poorly connected to our verbal centers, but very well connected to our gut. Should this come as a surprise? It turns out that gut feelings should not be ignored–an idea explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s classic book Blink.
Self-awareness consists, essentially, of tuning into this, and articulating it to ourselves.
The part of the brain called the insula tunes us into parts of the our body. If you pay attention to a specific part of the body, the insula actually activates more neurons in that circuitry. Gut feelings are actually messages from our insula, it turns out.
Now, there are actually two forms of self-awareness: there is the “me” which connects us to the past and future–our sense of ourselves in narratives that we’ve built up; and there is an “I” which constructed of the insula and is the sense of raw experience in the moment, in the present tense.
FOCUS ON THE SOLUTIONS!
We spend most of our conscious life chattering away to ourselves; we are utterly preoccupied with ourselves, and this is the greatest distraction in our lives. This is why meditation is so difficult: it’s excruciatingly difficult to get that inner voice to silence itself.
One method of calming that chatter down is to “start to subtract sevens successively from one hundred and, if you keep your focus on the task, yur chatter zone goes quiet.” Next time you can’t shut your mind up, try it out!
Goleman also recommends taking frequent restive period while focusing intently on something like a project. Focus takes cognitive effort; you are actually draining mental energy. Far too often, however, our restive periods involve surfing the web or playing video games–both habits Goleman says take away from focus in the long run.
You’re better off going for a walk outside, or even doing a few deep breathing exercises.
Of course, the best way to increase your focus is to begin meditating. Meditating has so much going for it that it really should be a number one habit in your repertoire. What “internal focus on our train of thought” does, writes Goleman, is to “tune out the senses.” When we get absorbed in something, totally absorbed, we inevitably shut off the inner voice–which is the point of a mantra or a focus on the breath.
When your mind wanders back to your train of thoughts, which it will almost always do, you consciously pull it back. This is called “meta-awareness”: your awareness of where your focus is. Also called “mindfulness,” this practice strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, and so increases overall self-awareness.
In addition, a meditation practice helps you to tune out the “me” thinking, and so leaves you with the here and now.
This level of mindfulness takes practice of course, but the good news is that “whatever we are doing, as we do it our brain strengthens some circuits and not others.” In other words, over time, a meditation practice improves your day to day life, because you will be living more in the present, better connected to yourself, and, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Willpower Instinct, meditation is the best way to build up willpower and, therefore, accomplish your goals and build positive habits.
Aside from meditation and doing math problems in your head, Goleman gives the reader three more basic tools for pitting “self-restraint against instant gratification”:
- We can voluntarily disengage our attention to another object we desire.
- we can engage in fantasy play, and thus change our focus while getting willfully sucked into mind wandering;
- we can think back to our future goals, and keep our mind there, rather than be tempted.
Granted, these are difficult to do, but with all the tips and tricks I’ve listed in past blogs, you’ll have an arsenal at your disposal.
Daniel Goleman’s Focus discusses many more things that I have not covered, including applications for social situations, athletic performance, business leadership, and even social issues. I highly recommend that you read this book if you are after practical ways to increase your focus, as well as having a decent understanding of what it is and what the latest science says about it.
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