More on Attention

  • Your mind develops depending upon how & what you focus on. If you change the narrative, if you are changing the brain. The mind can be shaped by experience, especially social interaction, when emotional feelings control your thoughts.
  • Attention is easily distracted. The main reason for this is the nervous system is continuously processing, reconfiguring and reconnecting the trillions of connections in your brain continuously (ambient neutral activity). A similar process occurs when we sleep. There is a stream of thoughts and images merging into conscious awareness but most of our thoughts never get much attention and disappear into the background. Research has shown that people on average hold a thought for only 10 seconds.
  • It has been found that when people are distracted by internal thoughts when doing difficult tasks, attention lapses and this reduces performance by activating the medial prefrontal cortex.
  • Distraction is usually a result of thinking about ourselves which activates the default network in the brain.

"...when you lose external focus, this default brain network activates and your attention goes to more internal signals, such as being more aware of something that may be bothering you..."

David Rock, 2009

. The prefrontal cortex takes up around 4% of the total brain volume and is central to conscious decision-making but the rest of the brain is bigger and stronger. Thus we need to strengthen the networks linking the prefrontal cortex with the rest of the brain.

. One theory suggests as a survival mechanism the brain has learnt to orient attention to anything unusual, novel, etc. The part of the brain involved in this is called anterior circulated cortex. Sometimes it is referred to as the error detection circuit as it is activated when you notice something contrary to what is expected, eg making a mistake or feeling pain. If this circuit is used too much, it brings a state of anxiety or fear.

"...This partly explains humanity's universal resistance to widespread change: big change has too much novelty..."

David Rock, 2009

. There is not enough glucose (energy) available for intense thinking, so you lose your train of thought. Some examples: you might be trying to hold too much information simultaneously, holding more than four concepts at once, too many decisions in the "queue", short-term memory is full, etc, so need to improve focus by inhibiting the wrong things from coming into focus. Thus we need to switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you as it takes less effort.

"...Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance..."

David Rock, 2009

. By focusing, people can inhibit their natural responses or impulses by activating the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. When you inhibit a response (motor, cognitive, emotional, etc), this area becomes active and acts as a brake on other areas of the brain that involve language, emotions, movement and memories. This is sometimes called self-control. Additionally, the more you activate the brake, the less effective it is, ie each time you stop yourself from doing something, the next impulse is harder to stop. This helps explain why dieting can be so hard and why, when you are tired, hungry or anxious, it's easier to make mistakes and harder to inhibit the wrong impulses.

. Inhibiting distractions is a core skill for staying focused. To avoid distractions, you need to develop the habit of vetoing behaviours early and quickly, before they take over. Language is also important: having explicit language to deploy gives you more veto power.

. Need to develop explicit language maps within the prefrontal cortex for experiences that were previously implicit, so that they are now controlled, ie explicit. We need to learn to inhibit impulses before they turn into action, eg speaking about ideas activates more circuits than merely thinking about them, which makes it easier to stay focused, ie the network is more robust.


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