How to Build a Focused Brain

You’ve set intentions and you have a vision. Yet…Your skin crawls as you stare at the screen. A big resounding ‘NO’ rumbles from deep inside as you look at your to-do list. A silent tantrum ensues as your jaw clenches with resolve. Everything is ready to go…but you’re stuck. Stressed out and drained before you’ve even started. You’ve acted on distractions and have a clean house or organized inbox to prove it. You resort to drinking more coffee; wired yet paralyzed. Is it time to join the ranks of the ADHD army and get a prescription? Are there any natural options out there that can actually help you focus your attention and motivate you to take action?

Focus. Our ability to direct and sustain our attention. The nourishing energy of focused attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person when we are listening to them. It is also the key to learning, memory and performance. Focus is impacted by many factors, from the synchronization of our brainwaves to the foods we eat. Take a deep breath as you soak in some knowledge that will help you…build a focused brain.

Step 1. Eliminate Distraction

One of the great challenges to focus is distraction. There are two main types of distraction. Sensory distractions from our external environment and emotional distractions related to our thoughts and inner dialogue.

A HUGE source of distractions comes from our newly adopted digital lifestyles. We’ve trained our brains by interacting with instant gratification based inputs like social media, email, texting and instant messaging. Flashing lights on the screen, beeps or swooshing incoming messages thrust us into reaction like the proverbial Pavlovian dog. These inputs give us chemical rewards that activate neural systems, which in turn alter our brain over time. They also shrink our attention spans–which are averaging less than 3 minutes currently.

So while we don’t entirely know where these brain changes will lead us as a species, we can already see hints of what’s to come. Many of us don’t process what we hear deeply enough to remember and we often need to review simple information repeatedly before we register it. With incoming data overload, we have no time to reflect on deeper meanings; And, we are left with a poverty of attention.

Focused Attention is a resource and a commodity. It operates much like a muscle. Continuous partial focus depletes our mental strength just like a leak will deplete the function and efficiency of a car tire. Because the internet provides constant tangents and distraction, we can spend hours each day leaking our attention and rewiring ourselves to be less efficient. 

Step 2. Limit Task Switching

Many experts have spoken of the detrimental effect of multi-tasking, but task switching is more likely the culprit. Doing something repetitive and mentally effortless like running, knitting, or chewing gum while working on a mental challenge is technically multi-tasking, but because one of the activities is subconsciously automated, it may actually help us get out of our own way and boost our performance on the other activity.

Task switching, i.e. moving from one mentally demanding task to another, is another story. Task switchers have been found to have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant sensory cues and suppressing disruptive, often useless, information. In essence, frequent task switching diminishes our ability to deal with distraction. And, just like when you switch banks, there is a cost; usually time and sometimes money. When your brain is switching tasks, there are costs that are a bit trickier to quantify.

Let’s take a quick look at the research…

  • Researchers at Stanford found that people who are regularly interacting with different streams of information cannot pay attention, recall, or transition from task to task as well as those who focus and complete one at a time.
  • Research done at University of London shows that multi-tasking (ie task switching) lowers IQ.
  • Research done at University of Sussex (using MRIs) shows multitasked brains have decreased brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex–A region of the brain that is associated with having emotional intelligence capacities like empathy and emotional control.
  • Researchers at University of California, Irvine found that the typical office worker spends only 11 minutes on a task before getting interrupted or switching tasks. Once workflow has been disrupted, it can take a whopping 23 minutes to get back on track. 

Step 3. Meditate to Shape up your Brain

Now, the good news. It is becoming common knowledge that meditation benefits us in countless ways. Meditation can increase will power and brain power. Research from UCLA and Harvard suggests that meditation can build brain tissue around areas of the brain associated with attention. As I said earlier, the brain responds to exercise much like our muscles do. Buff brain anyone?

A simple way to start is with Focused Attention Meditation, (FAM) which involves the voluntary focusing of our attention. You can read more about the research here.

FAM develops three vital skills.

  1. The ability to be aware of distractions while maintaining a stable focus.
  2. The ability to disengage from a distraction and redirect focus.
  3. A decrease in emotionally reactive behaviors that destabilize concentration.

To give it a try, simply sit comfortably with closed eyes and notice your breath. Imagine staring at a candle flame. Continuously release thoughts and return your focus to your breath. You can start with just a minute or two and increase the amount of time at your own pace. This simple practice creates a heightened sense of your own body and environment as well as refreshed energy.

Step 4. Exercise your Concentration

Neuroplasticity is the term for how the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and brainwave activity. Better focus involves synchronized brainwaves. Those with attention deficits tend to have less synchronization. You can use brainwave entrainment and neurofeedback to train your brain to synchronize more effectively. Most brainwave entrainment methods involve light and/or sound stimulation that move you into synchronization while you relax.

Neurofeedback training, or NFT as the scientists call it, is a conditioning method in which a participant is hooked up to an EEG (Electroencephalography) machine and shown how active her brain is during different exercises. Clinical studies have shown that NFT helps the majority of patients to improve their cognitive control and have also helped ADHD sufferers significantly improve their ability to focus. NFT has even been shown to have a positive effect on depression. If visiting a center is not appealing, there are devices that you can purchase for in home use. One such device is called the Muse. Muse inventor Ariel Garten claims that the Muse’s focus training exercises can be practiced “to reduce perception of pain, improve memory, reduce anxiety, and also improve emotional intelligence.”

The brain emits oscillating signals of variable frequency, and the frequency of the oscillations indicates what’s happening in the brain. These “waves” are sorted into categories based on frequency ranges:

Delta waves: deep sleep. (0.1-3 Hz)
Theta waves: relaxation or meditation. (4-7 Hz)
Alpha waves: indicate an open, relaxed brain state. (8-15 Hz)
Beta waves: alert consciousness and active thinking. (16-30 Hz
Gamma waves: epiphanies. (30-100 Hz)

Here are a few more ways to improve focus…

  • Try a focus game app like Lumosity on your computer or phone. Most of the apps involve simple fun games that are intended to build your concentration through small efforts and short practice times.
  • Learn self-hypnosis. Schedule a session with a local hypnotist to teach you how to most effectively access this powerful state of mind whenever you like. Self hypnosis differs from meditation in that there is a goal other that emptying the mind. In terms of the brainwave frequencies you can access, there are similarities to guided meditation. Here is a quick introduction to try out for yourself.
  • Spend 20-30 minutes a day learning to speak another language. Perhaps one of the best methods to improve focus, the benefits are countless and include increased problem solving ability, mental quickness and memory. Those who are bilingual also tend to improve better at high level brain functions like suppressing irrelevant information. There are wonderful tools like the Pimsleur Method or Duolingo to assist you.

Step 5. Nourish your Body and Brain

Here are some commonly repeated recommendations amongst brain and nutritional experts to explore as you create a plan to fuel your brain’s ability to focus.

  • Mind your Diet. Eat superfoods like blueberries, green tea, fatty fish, eggs, avocados, spinach, kale, cacao, walnuts, beets, and coconut oil.
  • Stay hydrated. Our brains are over 80% water. Staying hydrated prevents brain fog and fatigue and supports the electrical energy needed for all thought processes like focus and memory.
  • Have snacks ready. Studies show that blood glucose levels impact mood and will power. No Glucose=no will power. Stick to low glycemic index rated foods like raw fruits and veggies, good fats and proteins for a steady stream of energy instead of spikes and crashes.
  • Supplement: Make sure you are getting proper amounts of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Check out the book The Mood Cure for more on the benefits of fish oil or supplements like Tyrosine. Check with a health professional to find a supplement that suits you.
  • Use essential oils. It has been demonstrated that essential oils like Rosemary can improve memory and heighten focus.
  • Chew gum. A 2011 study found that people who chewed gum during a stressful task were more alert than those who went without.
    Our ability to generate power is highly correlated with our ability to recharge and relax. 

Are you ready for a surprising new experience of your mental prowess? Well, you now have the tools! Start implementing a few of these ideas (the more the better) and you will be preparing yourself for a greater level of focus.