Concentration – the war in the brain


One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.

But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.

The war in the brain

Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention a is a limited resource so how we use it is important.

Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.

The problem is that these maps change based on how “relevant” the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!

The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.

The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And its made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.

The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!

Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.

How to improve concentration  

Some of the methods below will seem obvious and there is of course no magic bullet, however because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.

  1. Reduce distraction –  if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
  2. Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goal and don’t make them too ambitious.
  3. Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include, deep breathing, click this video its very helpful, and of course exercise which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
  4. Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours for example playing video games can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.

And if you would like to find out more watch these:


Turn off the mobile – multi tasking doesn’t work

Information every whereThe background to Dr Daniel J Levitin latest book, “Thinking Straight” is that the information age is drowning us with an unprecedented deluge of data and we need to develop strategies to cope. Information overload and distraction are two problems we face when it comes to learning. How easy do you find it to concentrate when studying? Do you sit in a quiet room with no distractions and focus your attention on one task or is your mobile phone, PC or tablet sat close at hand waiting to deliver the worlds information in a second.

In the past books were precious due to their scarcity and knowledge hard to acquire the result of people’s inability to read. Following the invention of the printing press in 1450 books became more readily available but even then the amount of information any one individual was exposed to was very small. In addition the pace of life was slower, expectations as to what could be achieved balanced against the practicalities of what was humanly possible.

information_overloadBut look at the situation today, we live in an information rich society, all of it accessible at the press of a button. The problem now is not availability of knowledge (western world centric I know) but curation, synthesis and prioritisation. Yet how well is our brain programmed to cope with this new world?

Good job we can multi task

Levitin argues that multi tasking is inefficient, it’s a myth. The idea that one solution to this deluge of data is to do several things at the same time is simply wrong.  When you are doing two things at once, reading a book whilst monitoring your Twitter feed or face book account for example you are not in fact doing two things at once, you’re switching between neurones very quickly and this is giving the illusion of multi tasking. The downside of this process is it drains energy, neurones need glucose and the constant switching depletes it, resulting in poor concentration and an inability to learn as effectively. Multi tasking

I have written before (Attention Breach of duty as a student) on the importance of focusing your attention on one thing at a time and Levitin is supporting doing just that. However he does add something that I think is of interest. When you flit between two competing information sources the brain will reward you with a shot of dopamine, the pleasure drug. The result being you will enjoy the experience. This was valuable for Stone Age man because discovering a new food source at the same time as avoiding being eaten was helpful but in a modern world it is just problematic.

Externalise the information – organise, reduce and prioritise

What Levitin suggests is that you need to externalise, get the information out. In simple terms write it down, making lists is an example of externalising. He also states that you should write rather than type as this requires deeper processing.

So if you want to follow a more brain friendly approach to learning you should:

  • Break information down (A common message) into chunks and write out the key points. This will help you focus and process the information at a deeper level.
  • Find a place that is free from distraction, turn off all mobile devises. This is probably the most important message; your brain does not deal well with doing two things at once.
  • Make a list of what you have to do. Interestingly this is where technology can help. Google calendar can set up simple reminders so that you don’t have to keep distracting yourself by thinking about something you need to do later.

And if you’re interested click this link to read – Why the modern world is bad for your brain.

Ps Beth this ones for you!

Attention! – Breach of duty as a student

Beam of light

Once again the FT has provided me with some food for thought. An article entitled why e-mail must disappear from the boardroom, Monday 27th July 2009, suggested that main board Directors should give all their attention to the meeting and less to the email that has just arrived on their Blackberry or similar electronic device.

In fact it suggested that by not giving all their attention to the meeting they could be in breach of their fiduciary duty to shareholders.  How would you feel if the surgeon who was about to cut you open was concentrating on an email rather than on you?

It went on to quote some research from Rene Marois a neuroscientist and Director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt university that the brain has an inability to concentrate on two things at once. The researchers even have a name for it “inattention blindness”.

Now think about this in the context of learning, if you are in a classroom or any other learning environment for that matter and you move your attention from the classroom to another event, a text or email perhaps, then although you are in the room you have put your attention elsewhere.

Yes you can hear what is going on and yes if someone called your name you could respond all be it slowly, but would your ability to learn and recall the facts from the lecture be as good, somehow I think not.  This is not to say that periodically you should not let your concentration drift as you begin to think about coffee or what you want to do at the weekend, this is a perfectly natural and in some instances a necessary form of relaxation that can help with learning. This is about being engaged, giving The Event your full attention.

Think of your attention as a single beam of light, able to shine on only on one thing at a time, it illuminates and makes clear that one thing but when you move the light what you were looking at becomes dark or at best not as clear, something in your periphery.

And so to the point, when you have an opportunity to learn, attend a lecture or meeting, give it your full attention. You are not being efficient by doing two things at once you are in fact only ever doing one. So if you do have two things to do but only time to do one, look carefully at what they are and prioritise. And if the email is more important give it all your attention and only after you have dealt with it come to class or attend the meeting.

One other point, you do not become invisible when on your mobile, everyone can see that you have your shoulders slumped in the so called “Blackberry prayer”. Now you might think that this sends a very clear message as to how busy and important you are, in fact it does the complete opposite. People think that you are not in control, probably fire fighting, a poor delegator and a poor manager. And yes it’s bloody rude……