The Science of Concentration

The Science of Concentration

(An article published in the DNA newspaper some time back).

***You can drive yourself crazy trying to multitask or you can recognize your brain’s finite capacity for processing information, and achieve the satisfaction of a focused life***

Imagine that you have ditched your laptop and turned off  your smartphone. You are beyond the reach of Facebook, e-mail, text messages. You are in a Twitter-free zone, sitting in a taxicab with a copy of Rapt, a guide by Winfred Gallagher to the science of paying attention.

The book’s theme, which Gallagher chose after she learned that she had an especially nasty form of cancer, is borrowed from the psychologist William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” You can lead a miserable life by obsessing on problems. You can drive yourself crazy trying to multitask and answer every e-mail message instantly.

Or, you can recognize your brain’s finite capacity for processing information, accentuate the positive and achieve the satisfactions of what Gallagher calls the focused life. It can sound wonderfully appealing, except that as you sit in the cab reading about the science of paying attention, you realize that…you are not paying attention to a word on the page.

The taxi’s television, which can’t be turned off, is showing a commercial of a guy in a taxi working on a laptop — and as long as he is jabbering about his new wireless card has made him productive during his cab ride, you can’t do anything productive during yours.

Why can’t you concentrate on anything except the desire to shut him up? And, even if you flee the cab, is there any realistic refuge anymore from the “age of distraction”?

I put these questions to Gallagher, and to one of the experts in her book, Robert Desimone, a neuroscientist at MIT who has been doing experiments somewhat similar to my taxicab TV experience. He has been tracking the brain waves of macaque monkeys and human beings as they stare at video screens looking for some flashing patterns.

When something bright or novel flashes, it tends to automatically win the competition for the brain’s attention, but that involuntary bottom-up impulse can be voluntarily overridden through a top-down process that Desimone calls “biased competition”. He and colleagues have found that neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s planning center — start oscillating in unison and send signals directing the visual cortex to heed something else.

These oscillations, called gamma waves, are created by neurons’ firing on and off at the same time. But, these signals can have trouble getting through in a noisy environment.

“It takes lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial”, said Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

Now that neuroscientists have identified the brain’s synchronizing mechanism, they have started work on therapies to strengthen attention. In the current issue of Nature, researchers from MIT, Penn and Stanford report that they directly induced gamma waves in mice by shining pulses of laser light through tiny optical fibres onto genetically engineered neurons.

Ultimately, Desimone said that it may be possible to improve your attention by using pulses of light to directly synchronize your neurons, a form of direct therapy that could help people with schizophrenia and attention-deficit problems.

In the nearer future, neuroscientists might also help you focus by observing your brain activity and providing biofeedback as you practice strengthening your concentration.

Gallagher advocates meditation to increase your focus, but she says there are also simpler ways to put the lessons of attention researchers to use. Once she learned how hard it was for the brain to avoid paying attention to sounds, particularly other people’s voices, she began carrying ear plugs with her.

She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point, your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, and sip caffeine before focusing again. But, until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of re-booting after an interruption. “Multitasking is a myth,” Gallagher said.”You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or that.”

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless net surfing or couch potatoing? You are constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience.”

During her cancer treatment several years ago, Gallagher said, she managed to remain relatively cheerful by keeping in mind James’s mantra as well as a line from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

“When I woke up in the morning,” Gallagher said, “I’d ask myself: Do you want to lie here paying attention to the very good chance you’ll die and leave your children motherless, or do you want to get up and wash your face and pay attention to your work and your family and your friends? Hell or heaven — it’s your choice.”

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