• Stephen Baines

The Power of Concentration

If only you could concentrate more, you could probably accomplish almost anything. This might sound somewhat hyperbolic but it’s true. Ultimately, success often comes down to who is willing to work the hardest and the longest and if you put more effort into anything then you’ll be more likely to succeed. Imagine for a moment that you are a writer who earns £2 for every 100 words you write.

That might not seem like much, but now imagine that you were able to write 25,000 words a day. Now you’re earning a lot, right? That’s £500 a day! In your job, you probably aren’t paid based directly on your output but that doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve more by working harder or longer. Ask yourself this: how many hours of your working day do you really spend producing your optimal amount of output?

For most of us, we only really work our very best for a couple of hours a day. The rest of the time we spend looking at e-mails, we spend surfing the web or we spend on Facebook. Imagine if you had infinite concentration. Imagine if you could work solidly for the full eight hours. You’d accomplish more than the rest of your team put together and it would only be a matter of time before your salary reflected that.

You’d never have to stay late and in fact, you’d probably get to go home early a lot of the time. It’s not just in our careers where concentration really matters though either. In the rest of our lives, concentration is equally important. Imagine how much better your relationship would be if you were always giving your partner your full attention. Imagine how much you’d improve as a parent if your mind wasn’t on other things.

Concentrating on what is going on around you even makes you more alert and more focused when you’re out and about. This makes you better at responding to a crisis situation and is what the military call ‘situational awareness’. In other words, being able to concentrate on what matters and being able to stay focused at all times is the secret to doing more and doing everything better.

How does that sound?

What is Concentration, Really?

This article, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is all about putting you back in the driving seat and giving you full, unflinching mastery over your mental faculties. The key is about how you recognise what captures your concentration. Creating the conditions for optimal output. Putting your focus exactly where it needs to be. To do this though, you’re going to need to know what focus really is and what all that actually entails.

That means we’re going to delve very quickly into some neuroscience. Don’t worry if any of it doesn’t make sense – you don’t actually need to understand it to take full advantage of the tips we’ll be looking at.

Executive Control and the Salience Network

So what exactly happens in the brain when you concentrate? Actually, a number of things are at play. Firstly, you have an increase in specific neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine. These are similar to hormones that are produced in the brain and which alter our mood, our memory and more. The neurotransmitters associated with attention and concentration are called the catecholamine neurotransmitters and are similar to those produced during a ‘fight or flight’ response.

When you have an abundance of these chemicals in the brain, it causes you to stay more engaged, to remember what happens better and to generally be more alert and switched on. These neurotransmitters will be produced where they are needed and in the case of most tasks that require our concentration, that means the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain contains the various different areas that are required for ‘higher order’ cognitive tasks that involve planning, memorizing and deep thought.

In fact, this more specifically involves a ‘network’ of brain areas that are together called the ‘attention network’ or the ‘executive control network’. This change in neurochemical profile alters the action of the neurons (brain cells) in that region. These are all ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitters which mean that they increase the amount of electrical activity (action potentials) among cells. Conversely, you also have ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitters which include the likes of GABA and adenosine.

As neurons change their rate of firing, this alters the brainwaves in that region. When we’re concentrating hard, this tends to result in beta waves in the prefrontal cortex. Caffeine also increases the amount of beta wave activity in the brain. But how does our brain know that something is important and worthy of our attention?

While the answer to this isn’t fully understood, what we do know is that it involves another network of brain areas called the ‘salience network’ and which includes the anterior cingulate cortex. Essentially, the salience network and the ACC allow us to identify something as important consciously and this then allows us to direct the executive control network to things that matter.

In turn, this causes a flood of dopamine and encourages the limbic system and hippocampus to move more of the experience into long term memory. Interestingly, the salience network is also related strongly to motivation and the will to ‘keep going’. Mice with their salience networks removed find themselves giving up much more quickly when looking for food in a maze and ultimately this seems to be what’s responsible for the ‘will to go on’.

Also interesting, is that our attention can be directed by either internal or external factors. For instance, if you decide that something is important and opt to focus on it, then this is called ‘top-down’ attention and it will activate the brain across the dorsal attention network.

On the other hand, though, your attention can also be triggered by a noise or distraction in your environment which will cause you to switch your focus reflexively. In this case, the information flows from the bottom up via the ventral attention network. Confused yet? Don’t worry. Just keep all this information roughly in your mind and over the coming weeks we’ll be looking at how it relates to some of the different strategies and techniques you can use to increase your focus and attention.

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