The ability to focus your attention plays a role in many things – from studying for a test to positive social interactions. Attention deficits can be related to disorders or have other underlying factors. In this article, we dig deeper into what exactly focus is, and ways to improve it. What Is Attention?
Attention is the ability to take notice of something or someone. If you focus on something, that means that you are paying particular attention to something. Forms of Attention
Sustained attention : the ability to focus cognitive function on specific stimuli.
Selective Attention : the ability to pick one thing to focus on while filtering out stimuli.
Task-switching : the ability to switch between tasks back and forth.
Visual Attention : a type of attention that allows us to deal with capacity problems by selecting relevant, and filtering irrelevant information. Visual attention has 3 subtypes including: Spatial : selectively processing visual information through prioritizing an area in your visual field.
Feature-based : enhances how you perceive an image’s characteristics (useful for filtering out stimuli).
Object-based : the relationship between an object and selective attention, suggesting enhanced visual processing of that object’s feature.
Brain Networks in Focus/Attention
The Prefrontal Cortex plays a role in executive functions including [ 1 ]: Sustained Attention
Short term memory tasks
Detecting stimulus/completing tasks
Inhibitor control of interference
Active problem solving
While these brain areas are needed to complete tasks at hand, they’re not necessarily involved in concentrating itself.
The Salience Network may be responsible for determining what is most important from incoming information and deciding what requires your focus. Salience Network
The Salience Network includes three structures [ 2 ]: Amygdala
The Substantia Nigra/Ventral Tegmental Area
The Salience Network selects specific stimuli for additional processing from a constant stream of input information.Saliency detection mechanisms in the brain are at the core of this process and split into two general mechanisms. > A fast, automatic “primitive” mechanism for filtering out stimuli based on their senses. A high-order system for competitive circumstantial specific stimulus selection. This increases resources for goal driven-behaviors based on what is most important at the given time. It’s important to note that salience (importance of stimuli) may vary between individuals.The Saliency Network plays a crucial role in identifying the most biologically and cognitive relevant internal and external stimuli to prioritize and guide behavior. Structural Brain Changes and Brain Chemicals that Affect Focus Dopamine : it plays a role in diseases with attentional impairments like ADHD and Alzheimer’s. It is a key neurotransmitter in behavioral adaption and preparing voluntary attention [ 3 ]. Noradrenaline : it plays a role in many forms of attention. Stimulant medications also release a combination of noradrenaline and dopamine [ 4 ]. Cholinergic treatments (AMPA receptors/ acetylcholine , phosphatidylcholine, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors): they improve attention impairments in conditions where the choline system is dysfunctional and also in healthy subjects [ 5 , 6 ]. Beta/Alpha waves: these are both associated with attentional processes and other basic cognitive functions [ 7 ]. Cortical thickness : this is reduced in aging and in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Increasing cortical thickness improves focus, perceiving internal experience, sensory processing, and executive functions [ 8 , 9 ]. Nitric oxide/Increasing brain blood flow : regional blood flow changes are noted in people with ADHD. Additionally, decreased blood flow is associated with cognitive impairments in other diseases [ 10 , 11 ]. BDNF : low BDNF is associated with ADHD, and plays a role in working memory directly associated with selective attention [ 12 , 13 ]. Testosterone : low levels in aging or hypogonadism are associated with cognitive impairments of all kinds including focus. Raising levels to artificial extremes likely will cause cognitive problems, rather than improvements [ 14 ]. Myelination: it is associated with a range of cognitive functions, including attention [ 15 , 16 ]. Klotho : mouse bred with higher levels of klotho perform better on learning tests and had higher resistance to oxidative stress [ 17 , 18 ]. Oxidative Stress: reduced oxidative stress helps improve ADHD symptoms [ 19 ]. Lifestyle Changes The following lifestyle interventions may help you improve your focus and attention. Although most of them have multiple health benefits, remember to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle and diet. Importantly, consult a doctor if you have severe inattention or you notice no effects after trying these complementary strategies. 1) Exercise Regular aerobic exercise showed improvement in focus , task switching, selective attention, and attentional deficits associated with ADHD in multiple clinical trials [ 20 , 21 , 22 ].Exercise improves areas that contribute to the ability to focus, including [ 23 ]:Given its multiple health benefits, it’s a good idea to do more exercise whether you want to improve your attention or not. Exercise Mechanisms 2) Sleep Poor sleep impairs cognitive areas such as attention, memory, creativity, language and numerical skills, and executive function [ 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 ]. Sleep interventions improved cognitive performance and overall well-being in 4 clinical trials on almost 700 children with ADHD [ 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 ].Whether you have ADHD or simply want to improve your attention and focus, getting a good night’s sleep is always a good idea and has multiple other benefits. Read this post to learn how to fix your sleep . 3) Spending Time in Nature While urban environments cause mental fatigue because they require us to constantly use or voluntary attention, outdoor environments in nature only rely on the more relaxing involuntary attention.In a clinical trial on 17 children with ADHD, concentration and attention performance improved after a 20-minute walk in the park but not in urban settings . Similarly, over 500 parents of children with ADHD responding to 2 surveys reported symptom improvement […]