Your brain really thrives on getting information and paying attention
Curiosity, wonder and play are three of many ways we inspire our brains to open to new information. We want to learn, and we want it to be fun!
Attention, also referred to as focus or concentration, must be lovingly nurtured to marshal the effort needed to improve your brain’s performance. Your brain and body are in this together; the relaxation and focus of one naturally informs the other.
Attention in the mental sphere is akin to endurance in the physical sphere. Like an athlete, you can learn to focus your mental energies, but to do that you need to train regularly. And as most of us know , it is often challenging to garner the discipline necessary to establish a routine that will lead to your goals. Learning to meditate, for example, is a discipline and a challenge, but can also be engaging and interesting, encouraging you to want to do it. And it serves to establish a strong ability to focus in an open and relaxed way. It can inspire curiosity, a very important component in any kind of endeavor: it can involve your whole brain and body and move you forward into deep exploration.
To be fully attentive, we have to be awake!
This is a fairly commonsense idea: if we’re asleep, we’re not attending to anything. When we’re awake, our attention depends on the degree of wakefulness. If we’re drowsy, day dreaming or stressed, we have decreased focus and attention. We have to be in a narrow continuum where we have highly focused and relaxed attention to look at and experience something and get all the details about it.
Attention can improve concentration, frontal brain functioning, I.Q., sequencing, context, drive and executive control.
And it can also bring wonder! When your brain is attentive and focuses in a relaxed and open way, you can develop the innocence, curiosity and wonder of a child. When you meditate, your mind will move into something truly interesting, and so finding the enthusiasm to continue is a natural result.
There are many ways to enhance attention (look at the end of my blog). Meditation training is one wonderful to do this. Research has shown that structural changes occur in the brain’s circuitry that enhance relaxation, focus and curiosity, helping to relieve us of our “creaky” brains and, in a way, become like little kids again. Personally, I love this!
As a rule, we don’t realize when we are being inattentive. You can think of it as a “psychic blindspot”. Road accidents, for example, are usually a result of an inattentive driver or pedestrian. We think that we see more than we do, and that has consequences. Attention failures are rampant in our current culture, dominated by fast-response technologies. You’re sitting there thinking about something, and you fire off an email before paying attention to the consequences. Or you reach for your cell phone while driving on the highway at 70 mph, leading to an accident.
The biggest impediment to sustained attention in our culture is multitasking. First of all, multitasking is mostly a myth: we’re actually doing things sequentially, not concurrently. Interference effects with the use of the same channel dictate that I can only listen to so many conversations at one time. However, I may be able to listen to a conversation and read something simultaneously, because they aren’t interfering with each other.
It has been found that the more people multitask the worse they actually do. They become more distracted, and they have trouble distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information. There’s also a loss of organization and of the ability to think for oneself. We need to slow down and pay attention to think most efficiently and creatively—in a word, contemplate. Again, in this respect, meditation is our friend.
One of the greatest challenges that we face in our culture may be trying to enrich our powers of attention while accommodating our society’s increasing demands for multitasking. We have to do some multitasking, but we don’t want to drive away our attentional powers!
Some cool games
Here are some techniques to keep in mind for attention games: focus; using as many senses as you can; and putting the information in the form of an image if you can (the more dramatic the better).
Visual game. Look at a series of pictures rapidly. Then close your eyes and try to describe them. This exercises both your attention and your memory.
Auditory attention game. Try a game called “Clap Your Name”. Let’s say your name is Richard. Spell it out, R-I-C-H-A-R-D, by slapping your thigh for each of the consonants and clapping your hands for each of the vowels. For an added challenge, do it with another person or a group of friends.
Sustained and selective attention game. Quickly dictate into a voice recorder a long string of randomly selected letters and numbers. Later on, listen to them and tally only the numbers or only the letters. This works even better if you get someone else to read them for you: you respond by signaling only when you’ve heard either a letter or a number.
Divided attention game. Practice attending to two tasks at once. Rapidly tap your finger while attending to a news story on the radio, for example.
Processing speed game. See how quickly you can shuffle a deck of cards and break the cards into suits and put them in order.
Enjoy!! Make them fun! Get smart(er)!