Bodybuilding for Your Brain

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Bodybuilding for Your Brain






You’ve heard it before: we’re too distracted by gadgets. We’re glued to our phones. We constantly text, ping and chat, instead of paying attention to the road, each other or the “analog world.” Multitasking is a myth. Our brains are being rewired. Our kids are growing up permanently attached to iPads. Armageddon is coming in the shape of a smartphone. It’s time to show our gadgets who’s boss. Instead of letting technology drive us to distraction, we can use it to cultivate focus.

Plenty of stories highlight the dangers of distraction, whether it’s in driving, parenting or just a lingering sense that our relationships to gadgets have become dysfunctional. Beyond the much-researched and obvious, arguments also shed light on the importance of the quality of focus.

Focus, defined as “directed attention” — the ability to concentrate on one point steadily — sounds simple, but anyone who’s tried to meditate for more than 15 minutes can tell you that maintaining that state of sustained concentration is harder than you think. Try it now: sit down, close your eyes and think of one thing — a word, an image — for just 10 minutes. Now, try to focus while your computer and various devices ping, text and otherwise clamor for your attention.

It’s no wonder we can’t focus. With our close reliance on gadgets, and more people working outside the office, we have an even greater tendency towards distraction. No co-workers, no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s up to us to concentrate. And often, when left to our own devices, we lose it.

Focus is distraction’s flip side, and it’s in short order these days. As a type of intellectual resilience, the ability to concentrate on just one thing and contemplate deeply is as rare as a diamond — and just as prized by some employers.

“Short attention spans resulting from quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems and we will probably see stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature,” Alvaro Retana, an HP technologist, told the Pew Internet Project. “The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus.”

In other words, if you want to stand out in a crowd of job applicants, the ability to practice unwavering concentration will give you a competitive edge, especially at a time when people are more likely to check Facebook and Google and delve into the rabbit hole of distraction.

Mental Muscle

Focus, as it turns out, is not our minds’ default mode — it is a mental muscle you have to build and maintain, according to cognitive scientists. Sustained engagement on one point of focus is a distinct brain state, markedly different from a resting one. In meditation, for example, certain areas of the brain “light up” when engaged in deep focus.

Despite the appearance of sitting there with your eyes closed and doing nothing, meditation is a complex mental process. According to studies, you have to direct your attention on the object of focus, notice distractions, corral your attention from what’s distracting it, and then focus again. While doing so, you activate areas of the brain controlling those functions — the prefrontal and visual cortex and areas of the sulcus. In fact, focus is a frenetic, mentally strenuous activity.

But as you practice concentration, focus gets easier. Over time, meditators were better able to control a specific type of brain waves, called “alpha rhythms,” according to an MIT study, which flow through the brain’s cortex, helping it to filter out distracting sensory information.

And most intriguingly, scientists discovered that long-term meditators are able to effectively “rewire” their brains, changing them physically over time. According to a UCLA study, long-term meditators have more folds in their cortex than non-meditators, allowing the brain to process information faster.

“Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula,” Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuroimaging, told Science Daily. In an era that correlates multitasking with more information and intelligence, it’s ironic that the best way to boost your brain’s processing power is to think deeply on one thing and filter out the rest.

Workouts for the Mind

Meditation is a highly-effective method to train your mental powers, but you don’t have to sit on a cushion and chant to develop your ability to focus. Just directing your attention with a bit more concentration on the task at hand can change your brain. Stanford scientists studied the neurological differences between light pleasure and focused reading, and found that the brain reacted differently to even just a slight shift in attention. Closer, more concentrated reading activated parts of the brain involved in movement and touch, for example — as if readers were living the story instead of just taking in information.

While it’s easy to demonize technology in its role at chipping away at our ability to concentrate, several apps and software solutions are stepping up to the plate to help us regain focus. You can “train” your focus, sharpen your memory and otherwise boost your mental skills with exercises, puzzles and other mind teasers.

Brain Exercise, for iOS by Gamco, offers a mental regiment to improve your memory, logic and focus, while Brain Blast uses numbers-based puzzles to build your acumen. If you’re interested in beefing up memory, Eidetic tests you on memorizing information. If you’re on Android, you can download apps like Memory Trainer to challenge your powers of memory and concentration.

But if you need help focusing right away, Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Willpower Instinct,” writes of a simple technique to get your prefrontal cortex pumping:

1. Sit still, either on a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on the ground with your legs crossed. Try not to move or fidget around, especially when that itch starts to creep up or you feel the urge to change positions. Stay still. It’s important to train you not to follow your impulses.

2. To help you concentrate, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When you breathe in, in your mind, say “inhale.” And think “exhale” when you breathe out. It activates the prefrontal cortex and quells the stress and craving parts of the brain.

3. Hone in on the way you breath and how wandering feels. After a few minutes of inhale and exhale, focus just on the sensation of breathing. If you notice your mind start to wander, focus back on breathing and say inhale and exhale a few times. That helps to train both self-awareness and self-control.

You can also take an outside-in approach and work on changing your environment. Some apps strip away distractions on the Internet, keeping you from checking e-mail, catching up on Facebook or otherwise browsing the Web when you should be working. Popular Mac programs like Freedom or SelfControl, for example, lock the Internet for up to eight hours, while StayFocusd does the same for Chrome.

If you’re looking for total isolation, some programs completely, yet temporarily, strip your computer of any and all distractions, creating an ideal work environment. FocusWriter gives you a simple, distraction-free environment to write, while Mac programs like Isolator and Concentrate, let you work in only one program at a time, preventing you from toggling back and forth.

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As distractions pile up, you’ll need to stay vigilant and cultivate focus and concentration. These tasks, which work out our brains as much as our bodies, will become even more paramount as younger generations, immersed in social and mobile from an early age, enters schools and workplaces.

“Teens find distraction while working, distraction while driving, distraction while talking to the neighbors,” Marcel Bullinga, futurist and author of “Welcome to the Future Cloud,” told the Pew Internet Project. “Parents and teachers will have to invest major time and efforts into solving this issue — silence zones, time-out zones, meditation classes without mobile, lessons in ignoring people on phones, texts and social networking.”

The brain is a muscle that needs exercise to stay pliant, vital and alert. The mind’s proven plasticity shows you can extend your mental powers well into your lifespan, but you have to carve out islands of quiet and calm to concentrate on important issues. After all, letting those mental powers atrophy because you can’t ignore the constant pings and notifications seems too high a price to pay for convenience and connectivity — a mind is a terrible thing to waste.


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