We are constantly bombarded with a never-ending amount of information both from internal and external sources. The brain is highly-efficient and as awe-inspiring as it is, it must combat information-overload. Attention itself is a limited-resource and we can only direct it to one thing at a time. Test your attention with the famous video below:
We are physiologically limited in our ability to process sensory information. Because of these limited resources, attention must be selective. Selective attention is our guiding light. It’s easier to understand if we think of this mode of attention as a flash light. We can direct the flash light to focus on a smaller subset of our environment. Anything that falls outside of the beam of the flashlight is not something we attend to. Anything that falls outside of this beam of the flashlight, is for the most part, unattended to. However, some items from unattended streams can still be processed. This unattended to information can interfere with the processing of attended information.
Attention determines what information we will perform further processing on and thus is important in human performance. You may have heard that the span of human attention is declining. According to a Microsoft report conducted, the average attention span in the year 2000 was 12 seconds. At the time of the report, this measured span dropped down to 8 seconds.
We should really take this report with a grain of salt. There are many types of attention and attention itself is task-dependent. This survey was conducted within the context of digital marketing, really measuring the difference between how long people were willing to interact/pay attention to content on the internet. This then may not even be a measure of the ability to pay attention to online content, but maybe our willingness to find the right kind of content that meets our needs.
Attention is a dynamic process by which humans use to focus on a discrete aspect within their environment. From one moment to the next, attention can switch and dissipate from the information you were trying to focus on.
There are many different types of attention. And in different situational contexts, its easier to focus your attention than in alternative contexts. For instance, you probably find it much easier to pay attention to a show than paying attention to a textbook. Here we are interested in selected, sustained attention. This is the ability to focus on an activity over an extended period of time.
How can you improve your attention when it comes to information that is difficult to concentrate on? How can you focus for longer stretches of time for difficult tasks and tune our distractions? This is certainly no easy task. You’re asking to improve a whole cognitive system that can improve your memory and learning as well.
Here, we will look at some ways to improve your selective sustained attention and help increase concentration.
1. Don’t try to attend to several sources of information simultaneously
When you multitask, or perform multiple tasks in parallel, research has demonstrated that on a range of tasks from procedural, reading to listening, that people tend to make more mistakes or perform the tasks more slowly.
Multiple studies, for instance, have shown that, when performing an additional task concurrently with a simulated driving task, such as hold a phone conversation, changing the radio, and interacting with an intelligent agent (similar to Alexa), participant’s situational awareness suffered, they had slower reaction times, and showed a higher tendency to get into accidents and made more driving mistakes (Strayer & Johnston, 2001; Drews, Pasupathi & Strayer, 2008).
It is best to isolate the task at hand that you wish to focus on. However, it has been shown that when a task requires different resources, such as auditory and visual, these tasks can be performed together, and humans can perform them more successfully. If, instead, you are trying to perform two visual tasks at once, such as watching TV and reading a book, these two tasks are competing with the same resources.
Decrease this potential mental strain by setting aside a time to focus on the task you want to accomplish and eliminate as many distractions from your environment as you can. If the task you want to focus on is something that can become habitual, eventually, you can free up your attentional pool of resources as you offloaded the task on the mental resource that underlie habitual behavior (Duhigg, 2014).
2. Supply your body and brain with the nutrients it needs to function optimally
If you feel your attentional system is performing below optimal level, first ensure that you are fueling your body brain, so that it has all it needs to function properly and is not trying to operate with deficiencies. Swaminathan, Edward et al. (2013) found that in children who had micronutrient deficiencies, specifically iron and B vitamins, can not only negatively hinder their current cognitive performance, but can affect their productivity level into adulthood.
In research done by Bourre (2006) on dietary requirements for the brain, he discusses the importance of B vitamins for brain health. Thiamine (B1) is considered extremely important as it facilitates the use of glucose by the brain, giving your brain sufficient energy resources and aids in modulating cognitive performance.
If your body is deficient in important brain nutrients, this can cause increased fatigue, mood swings, symptoms of depression and more. These all cause stress on the individual, which inhibits the ability to sustain attention for an extended period on a task. Reduce stress on the individual by fueling your body and brain, along with getting enough sleep and exercise regularly.
3. Pay attention in 25-minute chunks
In a study done by a group at Duke University, they had participants perform a 4-hour long task where they monitored an autonomous system on a simulated driving task. They found that subjects exhibited a physiological phenomenon known as vigilance decrement. This decrease in their attention occurred just under 21 minutes (Tucker et al., 2015). Other studies show this a similar attentional span of up to 30 minutes.
Since the ability to focus for periods past 30 minutes is quite difficult, implementing the Pomodoro Technique could come of use. This technique involves breaking up work and projects into time intervals. You set a timer, traditionally for 25 minutes, and focus on the task at home only for those 25 minutes. After the work period is complete, take a 5 to 10-minute break and perform another pomodoro interval. This is a great way to motivate you to get through a project and help you to work faster, but it can also allow you to slowly build up your ability to sustain attention for progressively longer periods of time.
4. Practice mindfulness meditation
Although the most difficult task on this list, this proves to be the most worthwhile as it will have the greatest effect on your attention. Mindfulness meditation is essentially an exercise in attention, as practitioners try to be present in each moment.
Semple (2010) wanted to investigate if mindfulness meditation could enhance attention. The mindfulness group partook in a 4-week mindfulness training program, followed by 4-weeks of twice-daily mindfulness practice. She found that the mindfulness group experienced significant improvements in sustained attention, outperforming her control group and muscle relaxation group, as measured by mean discriminability on a signal detection task.
Furthermore, mindfulness can physically alter the brain. Holzel et al. (2011) found that mindfulness practice leads to increases in grey matter density. Grey matter density is correlated positively with certain mental abilities and skills, such as sensory perception, memory, decision making and self-control. Batty et al. (2010) note that children with attentional deficits (ADD) have smaller brain volume as well as less grey matter. Building up grey matter density through mindfulness practice is a useful tool to markedly improve many aspects of cognition including attention and concentration.
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