5 ways to boost your attention span

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The human brain is the most amazing thing in the universe. It got us to the moon, built the pyramids, cured smallpox … And it also can’t seem to go six minutes without checking Facebook.

How long can college students focus without switching to something fun like social media or texting? Five minutes. Tops.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

Regardless of age, students were able to stay focused and attend to that important work only for a short period of time — three to five minutes — before most students self-interrupted their studying to switch to another task.

And that was under lab conditions when they were specifically instructed to focus as long as they could on something they were told was important. Our attention spans are evaporating. Focus is a lost art. Research shows we check our phones up to 150 times a day — about every six to seven minutes that we’re awake. In fact, we’re so distracted we’re walking into things.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

According to one report in Scientific American, data from a sample of 100 US hospitals found that while in 2004 an estimated nationwide 559 people had hurt themselves by walking into a stationary object while texting, by 2010 that number topped 1,500, and estimates by the study authors predicted the number of injuries would double between 2010 and 2015.

Still with me? Good. (Sorry — after those stats, I really do need to ask.) So how do we steal back our attention spans? Luckily, some experts have answers. Adam Gazzaley is a neuroscientist and a professor in neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. Larry Rosen is professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Their book is The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.

Okay, grab your Ritalin. Let’s get to it.

Attention span 101

First off, stop blaming technology. It’s not your phone’s fault; it’s your brain’s fault. Tech just makes it worse. Our brains are designed to always be seeking new information. In fact, the same system in your gray matter that keeps you on the lookout for food and water actually rewards you for discovering novel information.

From The Distracted Mind:

The role of the dopamine system has actually been shown to relate directly to information-seeking behavior in primates. Macaque monkeys, for example, respond to receiving information similarly to the way they respond to primitive rewards such as food or water. Moreover, “single dopamine neurons process both primitive and cognitive rewards, and suggest that current theories of reward-seeking must be revised to include information-seeking.”

Okay, fine — but if your brain is so good at seeking out new info, why is it so terrible at follow through?

Because the information-seeking part is way stronger than the “cognitive control” part that allows you to complete tasks. From an evolutionary standpoint, realizing there was a lion behind you was far more important than sticking to whatever task you were busy with before Simba showed up.

From The Distracted Mind:

Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting. Indeed, the fundamental limitations in our cognitive control abilities do not differ greatly from those observed in other primates, with whom we shared common ancestors tens of millions of years ago …

And focusing isn’t the only activity that taxes our gray matter. fMRI studies of the brain show ignoring irrelevant stimuli is not a passive process. Just like noise-canceling headphones need batteries, your brain has to expend precious resources in order to filter distractions around you. So doing the same task is harder in environments with more tempting or annoying stimuli.

Alright, you know a little more about how your brain works. So how do you go about increasing your attention span? First step: don’t waste what little you have.

1. Stop multitasking

Juggling multiple activities not only divides your attention among the tasks — but you also pay a cognitive “penalty” on top of that to manage the switching. This results in more errors and makes things take longer than they would have if you had done them each separately.

From The Distracted Mind:

If the two goals both require cognitive control to enact them, such as holding the details of a complex scene in mind (working memory) at the same time as searching the ground for a rock (selective attention), then they will certainly compete for limited prefrontal cortex resources … The process of neural network switching is associated with a decrease in accuracy, often for both tasks, and a time delay compared to doing one task at a time.

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