Neuroscience of Focus
A look at how the Brain Focuses
In order to be successful at almost anything, you need to be able to focus on it. As I mentioned in the last podcast Train Your Focus, that it has been said, one needs 10,000 hours to be an expert. We also mentioned that this is not always the case because we all HAVE different abilities to sustain our attention.
Focus allows us to direct all of our mental and physical faculties toward one objective and it allows us to avoid distraction or confusion.
Many of us struggle with focus because we are digitally hijacked. With the best intentions we find ourselves being lured away by our senses exploring new happenings on facebook, twitter and youtube. We engage in topics that we weren’t even considering initially. Our ability to focus is something that seems to be a skill of the past. Our brains are attracted to and rewiring because of constant disruptive bombardment of social media soundbites and other clickbait
But what exactly is does it mean to focus? How does our brain work when we are distracted VS focused?
To focus in meditation and on any project, for that matter, requires that we hold our attention on an object for a specific length of time. It also requires that we are aware of our wandering mind, and are able to bring our wandering mind back to calmness, and then sustain focus. These transactions are all recorded in our bran networks.
Our Brain Networks in Meditation Practice
Researchers have learned about brain networks through utilizing brain-imaging scans. These allow researchers to see precisely which part(s)of the brain are active and non-active during specific different activities. The active parts light up during a specific task. Let’s take a look at what happens during a focused awareness meditation practice: a practice of mindfulness in focus.
Step 1: Create the Focus
Let’s start by creating the task—breathing at the base of the nostrils— where our attention is focused. When we focus on this area for example, the prefrontal cortex, specifically the dorsal prefrontal cortex, stays active. This area is known for it ability to work with other parts of the brain which together make up a ‘network’ of regions known as the ‘executive control network’. This network is also associated with working memory, cognitive flexibility for example, when we plan and have to reason. So when we focus all areas get involved and are mainly orchestrated by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This area of the prefrontal cortex also has the ability to suppress information that you aren’t interested in. It has been said, that it has the ability to ‘put the breaks on incoming sensory data’. But we all know, that this focus will only last as long as the practitioner is able to hold attention.
Even those with the best focusing skills still are tempted by distractions leading them to drift—focus diminishes and the mind wanders.
Step 2: The Drift - Mind Wandering
As we sustain our focus, chances are that we are going to drift off into a place where our mind heads in the opposite direction. At this point, the brain activity shifts away from focus by a thought or feeling that surfaced in the mind field. Scientists have found that the drift, shifts brain activity to the posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus and other areas of the brain around the area of the limbic system, a contributor of the distraction network. At this point, depending on your experience and practice with focus, you may or may not become aware of your drift and you may be farther out in imagery land than you even know, but you will come around sooner or later.
Step 3: Bringing Our Awareness to the Scene
Once we have drifted, at some point we recognize that we have gone astray. The longer we practice being focused, the quicker our awareness kicks in. Thanks to what is called the salience network—anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex—that functions to segregate the most important among internal and extrapersonal sensory stimuli in order to guide behavior. This network, together with its interconnected brain networks, contributes to a variety of complex brain functions, including communication, social behavior, and self-awareness through the integration of sensory, emotional, and cognitive information. So we gain our awareness and begin to reorient our awareness to where we were in the first place—our breath at the base of the nostrils.
Step 4: Back to our Focus
With the help of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobe we are able to let go of our distracted object of attention and come back full circle to our calm center. In the case of meditation, back to our breath or mantra serves to guide us back. Finally back to our base, we can then practice holding that point of focus. At this time, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex continues to stay active for as long as the meditation practioner holds the focus utilizing the breath or mantra depending on what is chosen.
We see that training the mind with focus engages the brain areas and builds new networks that support a clear, tranquil and focused mind. It just takes some practice as I mentioned in the last podcast.
How to Use All This Information
So that’s a lot of information, how can you use it to improve your focus in real life?
The first thing is to Remain Calm—consciously aware living in the moment. We know that being free from stress, supports brain networks and keeps our capacity for attention and memory strong.
Second, recognize that the brain can change. Thanks to the science of neuroplasticity our brain areas that support focus and resilience can be trained with consistent practice in meditation. Over time your attention will improve.
Third, Be aware of the habit of switching your attention quickly from one thing to another. Pay close attention to what you are doing in the moment. It is not useful to talk with someone while you are doing something else. This is something many of us are guilty of in the modern age thanks to our tendency to ‘multiscreen’ and increase needs for instant gratification.
Fourth, Before you embark on something where you want to place your focus, know your Why? Knowing why you are doing something makes strong connections in our emotional center —limbic area— of our brain.
Finally, to prevent outside factors from hijacking your attention away from what you’re meant to be doing, create a schedule for yourself. When you want to meditate, make that your priority, when you want to eat, make that your priority and schedule things according to what you need to support your health and well-being.
With all these great ideas, one thing is clear, our diet and nutritional habits are responsible for giving the essential nutrients to support our brain network. More on this our upcoming podcast.