By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
With all of the distractions in today’s world, every client I have encountered has asked me “how do I focus?” Did you know that our attention span peaks in our 20s (Harvard, 2020)? No? I have to admit, prior to completing the research needed to write this post, I had no clue. What does that say for those of us with attention deficit disorder (ADHD)? How about for those of us that seem to forget so much when our mental health isn’t so hot?
Today’s post is all about why we struggle to focus. The science behind it is quite interesting, especially how we can use the science to improve our abilities to concentrate and focus. I know some of you have been waiting for this info, so let’s jump right in!
The part of our brains responsible for our ability to focus would be the prefrontal cortex. If you recall from my post Mental Health and the Brain: The Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our executive functioning. What is that? That is the fancy professional way of labeling the mental skills we develop to help us stay organized, on track, and remember what we have to do. We use executive functioning to develop and hold on to important things (like how to complete a job at work), looking at situations in many different ways (for example, the many different ways we can get to school or work if there is road construction), and the ability to use self-control (a.k.a. – not eating a pound of chocolate when it is in front of us).
As we age, our prefrontal cortex develops better control over that executive function. Want a real life example? Think about what kids do and restaurants while they’re waiting for food. As our kids get older, they are able to resist the urge to shoot straw papers at you (as if). This is because their prefrontal cortex is developing and strengthening. By the time we hit our early twenties, are prefrontal cortex is fully developed and able to maintain those executive functioning skills we talked about earlier.
Age is not the only reason our focus decreases. When stress is increased in our lives, our thalamus and you guessed it, that darn amygdala, are busy collecting all the sensory information it can to prove why the stress is warranted. With this increase in steady stream of information, the prefrontal cortex is trying really hard to focus, while determining if there are any facts in the information that darn amygdala keeps throwing at it.
This filtering is quite tasking when you think about it. Example: you are cycling down the street. Did you know that your prefrontal cortex is focusing on the act of cycling while filtering out all the random noises, colors, and oddly dressed pedestrians hanging out? When the prefrontal cortex is doing this, we are using something called exogenous attention. This is when we let our physical senses take over and dictate what we focus on. In this case, our prefrontal cortex says “hey! Keep your feet moving and the eyes on the road so you don’t fall over and get squashed!” All of this happens involuntary as a way to keep us safe…and alive.
That isn’t the only way our focus works. The prefrontal cortex is also in charge of endogenous attention. This is where the prefrontal cortex controls what we focus on voluntary things and tasks. For example: tying your shoe. Your prefrontal cortex tells the rest of your brain we need to focus on keeping those laces neatly kept. The hippocampus and hypothalamus work together to focus on memories related to tying our shoes, all while that darn amygdala moves the focus to the need to tie the shoe. Most of us are not distracted by people passing us by, or squirrels fighting with swords in the corner of our eyes, but on getting that shoe tied.
Whether it is exogenous or endogenous attention, our brain is releasing neurotransmitters to help us do what we need to do in each situation. One important neurotransmitter being released is acetylcholine. If you recall from my post: Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, acetylcholine is one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the body. It is responsible for muscle movement, forming memories, and maintaining attention. Acetylcholine works with focusing by essentially amplifying information that requires our focus. When we are concentrating really hard, we can see an increase in acetylcholine activity in the prefrontal cortex in brain scans. How cool!
Acetylcholine is not the only neurotransmitter produced when we are focusing. Dopamine is also released into the prefrontal cortex to reward our brain for focusing on what needs the attention the most. This reward tells our brain we are doing a good job (even if it is not focusing on what we desperately want to focus on, like the report for work and not the bag of potato chips staring at you).
Norepinephrine is also released when we are trying to focus. In a lot of my posts, norepinephrine has gotten a bad rap. It really isn’t all bad. Norepinephrine is responsible to help us stay awake and alert, getting the brain ready for any potential stress, and focusing. You know when you are sitting around and then suddenly WHAM! You are now focused on that weird sound coming from the laundry room? That is norepinephrine at work to alert you to the wash machine flooding. Norepinephrine is also responsible for moving exogenous attention to endogenous attention in order to turn off the wash machine and get it fixed. Talk about a super important neurotransmitter!
Now that you know how the brain works when we need to focus our attention, let’s look at how we can help our brain increase (and maintain) it’s focus. It is important to note that:
Coping Skills Alert!
One of the easiest ways to help us improve our focus and attention-span is by giving your brain regular breaks from work. That’s right, taking a break can increase your focus, especially if the job you’re trying to concentrate on stinks. The app, DeskTime, did a study in 2017 that showed the ideal work to break ratio was working for 52 minutes and then taking a break for 17 minutes. This study went as far as showing that productivity for those that follow this model went up by more than 10%. Now, just like physical exercise, starting at 52 minutes may be too much. I recommend people start by following what I call the television model. The majority of television shows are on for 15 minutes and then there is a 2 minute break for commercials. Practice focusing for 15 minutes and then giving yourself 2 minutes to do what you want. Slowly increase these times until you hit that magical 52:17 ratio.
Now what do you do once you get distracted? It takes approximately 25 minutes for our prefrontal cortex to say “hey brain! Get back to what you were doing!” All the more reason breaks are super duper important on staying focused. Once you are distracted, it is important to return to something we’ve already talked about. You got it: mindfulness! In my post Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, we discussed all the cool tips of the trade to return to what is in our control: our bodies. By practicing mindfulness once we notice we are distracted, it helps our darn amygdala calm down and let the prefrontal cortex take back control a bit quicker. As you practice mindfulness (wait, you still have to practice? Whoa!) when you notice you are distracted, that 25 minutes needed to focus naturally decreases.
Focus and concentration is something we all, as humans, struggle with. With the many roles we play, the different technologies we all use, and the pressure to do it all, focus will continue to be something we have to actively on. Thank you so much for taking the time to learn about how our brains focus and ways to improve that focus, one step at a time. Don’t forget to put these skills to practice to actually see the benefits of improved focus. I’m proud that you are taking time to learn how to keep your mental health on the right track!
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- Harvard Medical School (2021). Focus on concentration. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/focus-on-concentration
- McKay, Jory (2017). Science Says These 7 Attention Exercises Will Instantly Make You More Focused. Retrieved from Science Says These 7 Attention Exercises Will Instantly Make You More Focused | Inc.com
- Zelazo, Phillip (2020). The 3 areas of executive function. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/types-of-executive-function-skills
- Pastore, Robert (2020). The Neurochemistry of Focus. Retrieved from https://poweronpoweroff.com/blogs/longform/the-neurochemistry-of-focus