- Shiv Pathak
The science behind our ability to Focus
We all experience times when we struggle to focus. Usually when we’re tired or stressed out. Yet it’s when we’re stressed that we often need to get things done quicker. So that’s exactly when we need most to focus. We know that sleep is the foundation between mental and physical health so the first and most impactful way you can improve your ability to focus is to make sure your sleep is optimal.
Ideally, we want a hack that’s going to help us focus immediately and get everything done. Unfortunately, no such hack exists (yet). But there are a number of things you can do to help encourage focus.
Firstly it helps to understand what exactly our brain is doing when we are focusing. Well there are a number of chemicals involved in the process of paying attention to one thing at a time. The first is adrenaline (or more properly called epinephrine), and
Adrenaline actually increases alertness, which you are probably familiar with when you’ve been in a situation that triggers an adrenaline rush. It’s involved in our “fight or flight” response and is produced in the brain as well as adrenal glands in the body. Alertness is required for focus, but it is not focus alone - if you get a rush of adrenaline but no direction to focus that alertness in, you are not yet focused. Therefore, we need more than just adrenaline alone.
Another neurotransmitter produced in the brain is acetylcholine, which is key to
triggering the firing of motor neurons in our brain which enables us to contract and move our muscles which allow us to move our body. In addition to helping us move, acetylcholine highlights the neurons in the brain that are required for the specific action. In this way, it acts like a spotlight. So when you combine adrenaline and acetylcholine, you have alertness focused in a specific direction. This creates what we know as focus.
In order to maintain this initial directed alertness, we also need motivation, and this is driven by dopamine, often known as the “feel good” hormone which drives us. So the combination of these three hormones enables us to pay attention to something and enables us to focus more over time.
So what can we do to trigger these chemicals and hone our focus?
Well, like many other parts of the brain and body. Focus is a skill that needs practice. The more you train your brain to focus, the stronger those neural connections become and the easier it is to improve and maintain your focus. However we aren’t able to maintain high levels of deep concentration for hours and hours on end without a break. Our bodies operate on 90 minute cycles, often known as the ultradian rhythm. These 90 minute cycles are present in our sleep; they help us progress through the different stages of sleep throughout the night, as well as our waking lives. Nathan Kleitman, a groundbreaking sleep researcher found that the brain can only focus for up to 90 minutes before it needs a break. Without these frequent breaks, our performance significantly declines. So when you have something that requires deep concentration, schedule yourself 90 minutes to focus on it and then ensure you take a 10-30 minute break afterwards..
Now what you do in that break is as important (if not more so) as what you do in the 90 minutes of focusing. We often turn to our phones, tv or something else to keep our brains occupied. However you need to disengage from these things and give your break a real break. The best way to do this is to go for a short walk and allow your mind to wander, not driven to focus on any one thing in particular. Alternatively sitting or lying down and daydreaming is a great way to give your brain a rest.
So now that you understand a little more about how your brain works when it’s focusing, perhaps it will help you to structure your periods of intense focus better and get more out of your productive time. But make sure you schedule in those true breaks for your brain!