+ The Science of Concentration

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John Tierney reviews a book, “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life,”  by Winifred Gallagher.  The book is a guide to the science of paying attention.

After she learned she had a nasty form of cancer, Gallagher chose the theme of the book.  It is borrowed from William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”  

You can lead a misrable life by obsessiong on problems, or you can recognize your brain’s finite capacity for processing information and accentuate the positive.

Tierney spoke to Gallaher and one of the experts cited in her book, Robert Desimone, a neuroscientist at MIT, who has been doing experiements tracking the brain waves of macaque monkeys and humans as they stare at video screens lokking for certain flashing patterns.

When something bright or novel flashes, it automatically tends to win the competition for the brain’s attention. 

But that involuntary bottom-up impulse can be voluntarily overridden through a top-down process called “biased competition.”  

Desimone is director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.  He and his colleagues found that neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s “planning center” — start oscillating in unison and send signals directing the visual cortex to heed something else.

These oscillations are gamma waves that are created by neurons’  firing on and off at the same time — a feat of neural coordination Tierney likens to getting strangers in a stadium to start clapping in unison, thereby sending a signal that induces people on the other side of the stadium to start clapping along.

However, in a “noisy” environment, these signals can have difficulty getting through.  Says Desimone

It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial.  If you’re trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words.

Now that this synchronizing mechanism in the brain has been identified, researchers have started work on therapies to strengthen attention.

In the current issue of Nature, researchers from Penn, MIT and Stanford report that they directly induced gamma waves in mice by shining pulses of laser light through tiny optical fibers on to genetically engineered neurons. 

And in the latest issue of Neuron, Desimone and colleagues report progress in using this “optogenic” technique in monkeys.

Ultimately says Desimone, it may be possible to improve your attention by using pulses of light to directly sychronize your neurons as a form of direct therapy. 

This might help people with schizophrenia and attention-deficit problems (and might have fewer side effects than drugs).  If it could be done with low-wavelength light that penetrates the skull, you could simply put on — or take off — a tiny wirelessly controlled device that would be a bit like a hearing aid.

And in the nearer future, neuroscientists might also help us focus by observing our brain activity, and providing biofeedback as we practice improving our concentration.

Researchers have already observed higher levels of synchrony in the brains of people who regularly meditate.

Winifred Gallagher advocates meditation to increase focus, but she says there are also simpler ways to put the researchers’ information to use. 

For example, once she learned how hard it was for the brain to avoid paying attention to sounds, particularly other people’s voices, she began carrying ear plugs.  If you’re trapped in a noisy subway or a taxi with a TV that won’t turn off, Gallagher says you have to build your own “stimulus shelter.”

She also recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. 

At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest; this is when you can answer email, return calls and caffeinate (this does help attention).  But don’t get distracted until that first break — it takes 20 minutes to reboot after an interruption.

(For more advice, got to www.nytimes.com/tierneylab.)

Says Gallagher

Multitasking is a myth.  You cannot do two things at once.  The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.

She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money.  Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing?   You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.

sole source:  John Tierney’s article on 5/5/09 in the nytimes.  www.nytimes.com   “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life,” by Winifred Gallagher, Penguin Press, $25.95.  ISBN 9781594202100.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com  

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