How does our brain focus?
Imagine being outside, in nature. You see beautiful flowers and plants, you hear birds singing, the entire scenery is covered with a wonderful clear blue sky.
And yet, these aren’t the only things present. There’s the ugly brown dirt path you’re walking on, icky bugs are crawling about, and unsightly weeds are nestled right between the other plants. But we don’t tend to notice those things all that much. We’re usually much more focused on the beautiful things.
Imagine another situation. You’re in class, and your professor is trying to explain a difficult subject. But that’s not the only thing going on either. A few seats to the right, one of your fellow students is playing Candy Crush on his smartphone. To the left, a few seats in front of you, two other people are talking and giggling and cracking jokes. Right next to you there’s a pretty girl, it’s summer, it’s hot outside and so she’s clothed rather lightly.
And yet you, being a disciplined student and all that, don’t even notice those other things. Your attention is completely captivated by the professor and his boring explanation of nuclear physics.
Imagine that you have to focus on this guy in front, with all that stuff going on behind him. Not easy, if you ask me.
As we go through the day, just like that, we’re constantly bombarded with a variety of inputs and information. Ever wonder how it’s possible that we’re able to target just a few things that matter in a specific situation? We tend to call it focus. But how does it work?
A common explanation might just be that you consciously single out one specific piece of information, and use extra brain power to focus on that specific thing. Like, if there’s something far away in the distance, you just squint your eyes a bit, push your head forward, and suddenly you’re able to see that object a bit clearer.
You might suppose attention works kind of like shining a searchlight on something that we want to focus on.
Apparently, it doesn’t work quite like that…
More recent research has shown that focus works in a completely different manner. An American neuroscientist, dr. Michael Halassa, has been able to show that our thalamus, a part of our brain that plays an important role in processing sensory input, is coated with a layer of neurons, called the “thalamic reticular nuclei”. This layer of neurons appears to have the specific task of filtering out information.
In mice, he was able to show that sensory inputs were able to pass through while the mice were awake. When the mice were asleep, these inputs were completely blocked and couldn’t pass.
That wasn’t the whole story, however. Even when the mice were awake, this layer of neurons made a selection of inputs that were able to pass through and those that weren’t.
The mice in question were made to go through a maze. To find the right path, they were exposed to certain visual and audio cues, lights and sounds respectively. While the lights would lead them to follow one path, the audio cues suggested they follow another one.
To figure out which cues they had to follow to find their way through the maze, the researchers gave them additional cues that helped the mice figure out what they should pay the most attention to. When they were required to follow the light, certain neurons in the visual part of their thalamic reticular nuclei (TRN) activated. When these neurons were shut down, it was shown that the mice had more difficulty processing the audio cues.
If the mice were supposed to be focusing on audio cues to find their way, their prefrontal cortex signalled to the visual TRN to shut down its activity, which blocked out the visual information.
So what happened apparently, was that the mice were creating focus on the right cues by blocking the other inputs.
What’s more: it appears that not only can a certain sense get blocked out. It also happens that we’re able to focus within one certain sense, like sight. We don’t just block out sight and focus on sound. Our brain is able to block background noise and focus on one single auditory cue. For example, imagine being in a crowd of talking people and being able to clearly distinguish your friend’s voice, and understand what he’s actually saying while suppressing all the other voices. This is the same mechanism at work.
In other words: focusing isn’t about shining a searchlight on a certain piece of information. It means filtering out and getting rid of all the other information.
Most people think focusing works like shining a flashlight on an object. It doesn’t.
To focus, you have to filter
All of this simply sounds like very cool knowledge, something nice-to-know, but if you think about it, it does have some real practical significance too. It shows us a way by which we can increase focus in our daily lives.
Imagine you’re studying in a messy environment. There’s a half-empty cup of coffee on your desk, your cell phone is next to you, and you have your wallet laying on the desk as well. There are also lots of pens and pencils and different stacks of papers stretched all around this desk. In other words, there’s a lot of visual input present, which is information that your brain has to process, and yet you’re supposed to focus on just one thing present: your coursework.
Now, the more inputs there are, the more junk is on your desk, the more visual cues your brain has to filter out before it’s able to focus on your books. While it’s still possible to focus on your books, your brain does have to make a certain amount of mental effort to filter out and block all the other cues. This mental effort drains mental energy and makes efficient and effective studying harder than it should be.
Focusing is more like making a nice cup of coffee. You want the taste, the caffeine and the antioxidants to come through, but the yucky grounds have to be filtered out.
So, according to our newfound focusing philosophy, the key isn’t to shine that searchlight on your books with a stronger light bulb, it’s to remove things from the environment so your brain has less work filtering out other stuff, so focusing automatically becomes much easier.
If you want to be able to focus more efficiently, work in an empty space, with fewer gadgets and junk present. This reduces the workload on the filtering mechanism in your brain because there are less visual cues to process.
The same goes for your screen…and even your mind
And it’s not just your physical environment either. The same goes for your screen. How can you focus on one thing with twenty different tabs opened, six different spreadsheets, a plethora of opened Word documents and fifty shortcuts on your desktop?
All of these are visual cues that have to be filtered out. But as the amount of cues increases, it becomes more difficult to do so. Try studying or working in a room in which you are subject to a whole range of visual stimuli and noises, the TV playing, flashing lights, a radio that’s playing music rich with basslines, and people talking and laughing loudly, without regard for your presence.
You’ll be easily distracted, and productive work will be hard to come by.
This desk contains lots of items that your brain has to filter out before it’s able to properly focus. Keep it clean and tidy!
There’s a psychological aspect to this too. As the day passes, our brains can get filled up with random mental junk, which takes up mental space in your brain. These ‘mental objects’ can also become cues that our brain has to filter out to focus on something else.
For example: take the following situation: you’re at work and you just watched three exciting episodes of your favourite TV show. Some important character died and there’s a lot of drama going on. Now you’re working, but this event is still present in your mind. It has become a thing your brain has to filter out which, again, takes up mental effort and which in turn decreases your ability to focus.
One way to get rid of mental objects is to simply prevent them from popping up. Do your work early and keep entertainment and drama for later in the night. However, if your mind is already filled with mental cues, you might try meditating to get rid of them.
Less is more
Simply put: focusing is about removing things, not adding things. It’s not about making a bigger effort, it’s about creating an environment that ensures that you have to make less of an effort.
FocusMe does a similar thing. It prevents cues from popping up, it prevents you from deliberately adding cues that are just extra distractions. It filters out cues before they even ‘happen’.
Now that you’re aware of the mechanism that lies behind your brain’s ability to focus, you can implement this into your productivity philosophy. Try to do less if you want to do more. Remove visual and other stimuli. Create a simple environment that only has the bare necessities.
That is the way to true, perfect focus.
I hope you learned something useful today, and I hope even more that you’ll apply it in practice.
All the best,