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Attention is defined as the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one thing while ignoring all other outside stimuli. Without focus, our minds would simply drift from distraction to distraction. Any rogue noise, smell, sight, or thought would derail our brain from completing a specific task.
To better understand the exact role attention plays, let's review the puzzle example one final time. Working memory stores the puzzle pieces in our memory. Reasoning allows us to fit the pieces together. Attention allows us to stores the puzzle pieces in our working memory and prevents outside stimuli from interfering with them. Without adequate attention, the entire problem-solving process would fall apart.
Your working memory stores a limited amount of information. If you are distracted while you memorize the puzzle pieces, or while you process them, the distractions consume storage and processing power that could be devoted to the task at hand.
Think of attention as making sure the only thoughts in your working memory are those needed to accomplish the task at hand. This allows the thoughts to be as clear as possible. Simply put, the more attention your brain has, the more clearly it can encode, retain, and process information.
Focus acts in synergy with other cognitive areas. When you can commit a larger percentage of your working memory to the problem at hand, the parts to that problem become clearer, and it is easier to effectively apply reason. Attention is the glue the holds the entire problem-solving process together. Do not underestimate it.
When performing any of the metal exercises in this regimen, keep your cell phone off and remove all other possible distractions. Most people do not realize that when it comes to "attention", the brain is incapable of multitasking. Sure, multitasking in the general sense is possible. You can walk and text or talk on the phone at the same time. However, the mind can only "pay attention" to one of these tasks at a time. You cannot pay attention to the sensation of your feet striking the pavement while also paying attention to the text you are sending.
Every time you check a text message while working, you are disengaging your brain from the work at hand, and diverting it to the text message. The neurons your brain uses while working shut down and the neurons your brain uses while reading text messages light up. This takes time, energy, and when you go back to work your brain must go through this process again. In fact, studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task while also making 50% more errors compared to their wholly attentive counterparts.
The first and most obvious way to improve your focus is to eliminate auditory and visual distractions. Less outside stimuli makes it easier to focus. But, this is not always possible. Sometimes we cannot choose our working environment. The office can be very noisy. Even university study areas and libraries can have distractions that make focusing difficult. This is why I use earplugs whenever confronted with distractions.
Even with complete silence and minimal visual distractions, thoughts tend to wander. Regretfully, I have yet to come across studies which show increasing the number of brain cells and synaptic connections enhances attention, but studies do support the idea of enhancing one's attention span.
Certain nootropics can improve focus by effecting specific neurotransmitters. You can also improve your focus by giving it a mental workout. Focus is another "mind muscle". When you repetitively engage in activities that require high levels of focus, it becomes easier to do so in the future.
One example of this is Buddhist meditation. One study followed 60 people; 30 of which went to a Buddhist meditation retreat while the remaining 30 waited their turn and served as the control group. All participants attention span was measured through visual attention tests at three points during the 30 days. The attention of those at the retreat improved each time they took the test. Furthermore, the improvement persisted for 5 months after the retreat had ended.
Because meditation requires one to hold attention on specific things for extended periods of time, participants’ attention improved. Like most cognitive functions, attention can be trained. You do not need to engage in meditation to improve it. Engaging in any activity that requires you to hold your attention will improve it.
Below is a list of mental games and activities that can improve your ability to focus:
1. Improving Your Intelligence is Possible After All
2. Lifestyle Strategies to Maximize Brainpower
3. Optimizing Your Diet for Mental Performance
4. Mental Exercise
5. Nootropic Supplementation