The Neuroscience of Concentration

In order to be successful at almost anything, you need to be able to concentrate on it. Concentration allows us to direct all of our mental and physical faculties toward one objective and it allows us to avoid distraction or confusion.

The problem is that many of us struggle with concentration and find ourselves constantly spending too much time on Facebook, or on YouTube watching videos of cats. Either way, concentration is something that seems to be in short supply these days and that many of us could do with more of!

But what exactly is concentration? What’s actually going on inside the brain when we focus and how is it different biologically from other forms of consciousness?

Brain Networks

This is a rather abstract concept and as you might imagine, there is still a lot that we don’t understand. What we do know meanwhile is mainly the result of brain imaging scans. These allow researchers to see precisely which brain areas are active during specific different activities. In turn, that then means they’re able to rule out certain brain areas for specific challenges and eventually identify the most likely candidates for specific functions.

When we concentrate on a specific task then, which areas of the brain light up? Well, those would predominantly be areas of the prefrontal cortex which together make up a ‘network’ of regions known as the ‘executive control network’. These areas of the brain are those associated with working memory, forward planning and higher order reasoning and it makes sense that they would light up when we concentrate as they are predominantly the areas of the brain we use for most activities that require concentration.

In other words, we need these brain areas to perform those complex tasks which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re involved in concentration itself.

Rather it seems that this ultimately comes down to the work of another brain network called the ‘salience network’ (1). This network is believed to be responsible for helping us to identify what is most important – or salient – out of all the information we currently have access to. It incorporates a number of different brain areas but seems to involve the anterior cingulate cortex in particular. It seems that this network is what directs the executive control network thus meaning that a specific stimulus or qualia gets our full conscious attention.

What’s also noted is that our attention can be directed in either a ‘top down’ manner or a ‘bottom up’ manner. Top down means that we have a thought, idea or intention and then consciously direct our attention toward that thing. Bottom up on the other hand means that something changes in our environment and this in turn forces us to sit up and take notice – whether that means that we see a flashing light or hear some kind of alarm. The former type of attention sees information flowing through the ‘dorsal attention network’ while the latter sees it flow through the ‘ventral attention network’.

Interestingly and perhaps predictably, our salience network is also linked to our ability to concentrate and to focus on a single goal over time. It’s sometimes described as controlling that ‘will to carry on’ when we feel like giving up – and it’s ultimately what keeps us going and tells us that what we’re doing is really important and really worth the amount of trouble it is putting us through. Thus there are noticeable differences in the brains of people who are overweight (2). Another study (link not available) found that rats with damaged salience networks were more likely to give up when searching for food in a maze.

If you want to focus on work then and avoid being distracted by YouTube videos, you need to be able to increase the efficiency of your dorsal attention network and decrease the effect of your ventral network. In other words, you need to believe strongly enough that the work you’re doing is really important and much more important than your hunger, or your need to watch cat videos. Which to be fair, it is. But try telling your brain that!

How the Brain Decides

So how does the brain decide what is important and what isn’t?

Most likely, this has to do with neurotransmitters that are released in the brain when specific brain cells communicate. Neurotransmitters live in ‘sacs’ at the end of neurons and when those neurons fire, the neurotransmitters are released and they essentially work like hormones to tell us how we should be feeling about what just happened.

Neurotransmitters associated with happiness include the likes of serotonin and oxytocin for instance, while those associated with salience and importance include norepinephrine and dopamine. Dopamine in particular is produced when we anticipate reward and this is what makes us work harder toward an idea or concept, while norepinephrine is more associated with stress and danger and is one of the key neurotransmitters that cause the ‘fight or flight response’. The salience network is closely linked with the limbic system which presides over our sympathetic nervous system.

When these neurotransmitters are released, not only do we experience more of a ‘tunnel vision’ but we also find that information is more readily converted for long-term memory by the hippocampus. In other words, because something important appears to be happening, we pay attention and we memorize that information for future use.

How to Use All This Information

So that’s a lot of information, how can you use it to improve your concentration in real life?

The first thing to recognize is that the brain is plastic. Thus any cognitive ability that is the result of brain areas can be trained and those related brain areas will respond by growing stronger and larger. This can in fact be demonstrated relating to these brain areas in particular by using exercises such as the Stroop Test and mindfulness training (3). It has also been seen that gaming (4) can strengthen the connections in the salience network, which is likely a result of their need to constantly switch and maintain focus. The best way you can improve your attention then is to practice focusing. And on the flip side of that, you should also try to stop the habit of switching your attention quickly from one thing to another. This is something many of us are guilty of in the modern age thanks to our tendency to ‘multiscreen’ and due to the influence of the internet which has taught us that we shouldn’t have to ‘wait’ to get the information we’re looking for.

Another thing to note here is that ultimately it is our emotions that have the ability to focus our attention. So if you really want to focus on something and not get distracted, you need to mentally connect the task that you’re completing with the reason you’re completing it. So if you’re working on a business project, you need to remember why it’s important for you to do well in that business and you need to really picture yourself achieving those things and the way it will feel once you reach that point in your life.

Finally, to prevent outside factors from stealing your attention away from what you’re meant to be doing, you should do whatever you can to block out distractions. One good way to do this is by listening to music, which will prevent outside noises from grabbing your attention. You can even try playing the same album on repeat, which will cause it to gradually fade into the background as you become desensitized to it. This is very similar to the way a clock ticking can eventually fade into the background and it’s a great strategy that some well-renowned business owners use – including the creator of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg!

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