By Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD
Even while your brain is focusing right now as you read this article, you may not notice it. Still, at least three different types of attention are producing your ability to focus and concentrate:
- Selective attention for focusing on one thing while disregarding others.
- Divided attention, also known as “attention switching,” for managing and processing multiple sources of information at the same time. Driving a car is a good example — your attention needs to toggle back and forth almost continually. Divided attention is especially vulnerable to changes as you get older but both aerobic exercise and practicing switching back and forth between tasks can help maintain attention.
- Sustained attention for staying focused on something for a long time. The aging process does not necessarily affect sustained attention. Your brain sorts and routes information so you can focus amid all the distractions and input that bombard you every day. It uses sensitivity enhancement to turn up or tune into sensory information like sounds and lights that can help process input more efficiently. Your brain directs focus capability by filtering important information and moving it up the ladder for deeper processing while suppressing interruptions from irrelevant bits and pieces — a function known as efficient selection.
How disruptions break your focus
Even with its elegant processing filters, your brain can still lose its focus. Loud noises and flashing lights generate lots of neural activity which makes them zoom to the forefront of your awareness, leaving behind whatever you had been focusing on. That’s useful on a battlefield or when you’re about to crash your car, but not if you’re trying to study for a test and a nearby car alarm breaks your concentration.
To stay focused, your brain needs a “braking system” to prevent the wrong things from popping into your mind. Scientists think this job is performed by the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) just behind each of your temples. And the VLPFC does block distractions — but some brains are better at using these brakes than others because the VLPFC is delicate and uses a lot of energy. Sometimes it works like a charm but other times impulse wins out. Just try NOT thinking about something and see how well that goes.
The cost of being distracted
Even though distractions are the number one factor that interferes with focus, many of them are self-induced. Since we have too much information (TMI) in general coming at us all day, our brains can simply get overwhelmed. TMI — especially at work — undermines our efficiency and dulls our focus.
Distractions are annoying and expensive. They use up our limited attention span and prevent us from moving into deeper thought processes when necessary. Ping-ponging from topic to topic uses up energy and fuel — your brain is powered by glucose — so it’s harder to understand, decide, recall, memorize and control what you do. The bottom line is that distractions lead to more mistakes, forgetfulness and loss of useful insights.
Lack of focus chips away at everything in your life — including the fun stuff. Many people are embarrassed to admit that they can’t focus long enough to read a paragraph, let alone an entire book. Immediately after they’ve read a sentence, they can’t tell you anything about what it said.
If you can’t focus well, your self-confidence erodes and insecurity builds, and that can lead to irritability, depression and anxiety. You might snap at co-workers or family members, ultimately abandoning the things you wanted to accomplish or share with others.
What exactly is distracting you?
Social media, email, cellphones and the internet are big focus thieves. One study showed that overindulging in social media and online surfing can be worse than losing a night’s sleep, or even smoking marijuana. Men are twice as likely to be distracted by electronic connectivity.
Many major distractions are due to the fact that our minds tend to wander, something known as ambient neural activity. This dreaminess is likely a result of the nervous system continually processing, reconfiguring, losing touch and then reconnecting.
Once a distraction penetrates your focus — an arriving email or even just getting out of your chair — it’s hard to stop yourself from investigating further because your focus has already shifted. Now, the distraction becomes your main focus and the task you were working on fades to the background.
Does getting older blur your focus? Yes — and no
Between ages 40 and 60, the areas of the brain that suppress distractions may slow down so you can find it harder to ignore distractions or irrelevant information. Changes to certain aspects of memory, attention and perception —the brain’s “early processing” areas — will affect cognitive function down the line.
But we’re all different and so are our brains — plenty of older folks have razor sharp focus into their 70s and 80s. And others may have decreased concentration in certain areas but not others.
This variability is due to a range of factors, some biological or psychological, with others more related to health, environment, and especially lifestyle. A lot of recent scientific studies looked at the effects of lifestyle on brain function. As you might predict, an active lifestyle helps keep your brain healthy, and aerobic exercise is particularly good for the brain.
Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean you’ll end up with fuzzy thinking or poor focus, especially if you do something now to help you stay sharp.
You can improve your ability to focus and concentrate
We tend to forget that the brain is an organ that needs support and care to perform at its best. You can begin providing that
today by looking at your nutrition. What you eat and the nutrients you take in are crucially important for focus and concentration.
Can you start today? Yes! Plan a healthy meal for tonight’s dinner, and sketch out tomorrow’s menu. Add in a comprehensive brain supplement with extra B vitamins and vitamin D. Look also for DHA, an essential fatty acid found in fish oil — it’s well-known for its ability to support cognitive function. Other targeted ingredients can help protect the brain from inflammation, like curcumin from the spice turmeric. Our Memory Solutions contains all these ingredients, and more, and supports both healthy focus and memory.
Help ensure good focus and concentration when you need it by taking care of your body and brain. I’ve seen amazing results produced from just these simple steps. See our other article for more ways to improve concentration, but don’t wait. Today’s the day you’re taking action to improve your ability to focus and concentrate.
You can get started with supplements specifically formulated to provide your brain with the targeted nutrition it needs for healthy focus, memory and more.
Glisky, E. Brain Aging: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms. Ch. 1; Riddle DR, 2007. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3885/. Accessed November 1, 2014.
RIKEN. How our brains keep us focused. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120122104803.htm. Accessed November 1, 2014.
Rock, D. Easily distracted: why it’s hard to focus and what to do about it. 4 October 2009
Nikolaev A., et al. Eye movement-related brain activity during perceptual and cognitive processing. 24 April 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4006019/. Accessed November 1, 2014.
Knight W. ‘Info-mania’ dents IQ more than marijuana. NewScientist Tech. 22 April 2005 http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7298#.VFpcL8kWZI1. Accessed November 1, 2014.