Want to Increase You Ability to Focus and Working Memory?

Here are 7 Tools You Can Use Today to Get Real Results

It quite ironic that statistically 90% of those of you who start reading this article on increasing your focus and working memory will skim through for approximately 13 seconds before moving on. Why are we so distracted in modern society? Well, simply put, the cognitive load requirements on our focus and working memory are greater than at any point in our history (Maksimenkoet al., 2018; White & Shah, 2019). We make thousands of decisions daily, and receive what some might say is a “bombardment” of information across a multitude of mediums. It’s become so bad that our attention span has declined to less than that of a goldfish (Microsoft Corporation, 2015). Our focus has been turned to screens, such as tablets, smart watches, television sets, and smartphones, where recent data has concluded that the average adult spends approximately 11-hours a day (Zimmerle, 2019, p. 54), myself included. So if you’ve made it past the first paragraph, give yourself a pat on the back, you’re ahead of the curve.

The nature and content on those devices is specifically aimed at grabbing our attention, and keeping it for as long as possible. This can put a strain on our cognitive load; or the quantity of mental effort being exerted in our working memory at a given point in time. One research poll of 2,000 smartphone owners in the UK found users use their phones for tasks an average of 221 times per day, compared to an average of 140 times per day on a desktop or laptop (Microsoft Corporation, 2015). A seminole study conducted in 1956 by George Miller at Princeton University found the average person can hold seven units of information at a time; with a normal range plus or minus two units (Miller, 1956). So we have a clash between the amount of information coming in and the amount of information we can store and process.

Research into areas of improving our ability to concentrate and focus is pivotal in preventing further cognitive decline in these areas. There are methods available to us that have been shown to increase our working memory and ability to remain focused, such as mindfulness meditation (Rahlet al., 2017,p. 224), streamlined music (Mossbridge, 2016, p. 9) and binaural beats stimulation, which will be discussed in more detail later. But first, it can be helpful to understand how the brain processes information in order for us to understand why we need to work to build mind-wandering resiliency

The Brain and Attention

There are several areas of the brain that have been associated with attention regulation, consisting of the dorsal and ventral attention networks, the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex (which is the mother ship of attention). Within the PFC, the dorsal posterior cingulate cortex helps regulate attention by signaling increases or decreases in expected reward magnitude (Bourgeois, Chelazzi, & Vuilleumier, 2016). These areas work inter connectedly in order to discriminate what is relevant versus what is irrelevant. These systems can be categorized in the way in which they process information. Typically information in the brain is processed in a “top-down” or “bottom-up” manner. Top-down information processing is slower, intentional, and usually consists of more complex information (Gaspelin & Luck, 2018), whereas bottom-up information processing consists of stimulus-driven information that is typically unexpected (Bourgeois, Chelazzi, & Vuilleumier, 2016). These systems are believed to operate under what is called a “global hierarchy” (Markov, et. al, 2014), where each projection will show differing patterns of origin and termination. For example, bottom-up processing is typically carried by gamma-band synchronization, where top-down processing is usually carried by alpha-beta-band synchronization (Gaspelin & Luck, 2018).

So why are brain waves important? Well, they only become important if we understand that they can be manipulated; which they can (Alastair, 2010). During normal conversation where we are utilizing our working memory, while listening simultaneously, our brains are in a beta wave state, ranging from 14–28 hertz (hz). When we are multitasking, excited, or distracted, our brains transition to gamma waves, which range from 28 hz and up. However, when we are calm and focused on something specific, our brains transition to a lower frequency of alpha, which ranges from 7–14 hz. Researchers have discovered that alpha waves promote focus and working memory (Shekar, Suryavanshi, & Nayak, 2018; Kraus and Porubanová, 2015). Therefore, if we learn how to transition from other brainwaves into Alpha, we can increase our ability to focus. Additionally, researchers have discovered that lower frequencies regulate higher frequencies, and are more powerful (more amplitude)(Klimesch, 2018). This is important because if we can transition into a relaxed Alpha state of mind, then we can regulate our attention better. Luckily there are some things we can do to increase our ability to remain in an Alpha wave state, while blocking more localized distracting brain waves.

Practical Tips for Increasing Focus and Working Memory

  1. Binaural Beats Stimulation (Alpha Wave 7–14hz)

Binaural Beats is a specific kind of sound that when listened to can enhance a person’s creative ability, focus, memory, as well as mood (Reedijk, Bolders, & Hommel, 2013, p. 786; Colzato, Barone, Sellaro, & Hommel, 2015, p. 275; Kraus & Porubanová, 2015, p. 142; Chaieb, Wilpert, Rever, & eFell, 2015, p. 5). Binaural Beats (“bi”-two, “aural”- relating to the ear), are a combination of two closely related frequencies played in each ear. When the human brain receives input from both the frequencies, it synchronizes them through a process called “entrainment.” For example, when frequency (a) is played at 500 hz in the left ear, and frequency (b) is played at 514 hz in the right ear; the brain will synchronize the frequencies at 14 hz, which is the difference between the two. The result of this process is the synchronization of multiple groups of neurons across different parts of the brain, resulting in brain waves (Reedijk, Bolders & Hommel, 2013, p. 786). If listening to BBS is too uncomfortable, try masking it with white noise, or classical music. Studies have shown playing other music overlay with BBS does not decrease its effectiveness (Garcia, Miguel, & José, 2018). Streamlined music has been shown to incorporate elements of binaural beats as well as other elements to achieve a more focused state; streamline music can be found on websites such as Brain.Fm.

2. Get better sleep

Sleep is one of the number one things you can do to increase your focus and working memory, there are simply too many studies to cite that confirm the detrimental effects of a good night sleep, so I’ll go right into some tips that can help you get a better night sleep. I will also post a blog directly on this topic but will give you the highlights…

a. Stop eating at least two hours before bed.

b. Turn off all screens one hour before bed (at a minimum).

c. Drink “Nighty Night” Tea, or a mixture of 1 part apple cider vinegar, 3 parts honey, and a squirt of lemon in a mug of warm water.

d. Shut out all ambient light (red lights are ok) or get an eye mask.

e. Get a neutral masking sound machine or play white or pink noise from your phone.

f. Turn your home temperature down to an ideal 67 degrees fahrenheit.

g. Sleep in less clothes, but with socks on your feet.

h. Invest in a comfy mattress with a cooling pad or try the “ChiliPad;” you can find it on amazon.

3. Cognitive Enhancing Supplements

Starting with the two most important supplements (minerals) you should try to take some magnesium (typically before bed) and vitamin D. Magnesium activates over 300 enzymes that work to promote cellular repair and regrowth, as well as regulating your key neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin. Due to soil degradation and the standard American diet, you may not be getting enough magnesium, even if you’re eating all organic vegetables. One study showed that 97% of children diagnosed with ADHD were deficient in magnesium (Kozielec & Starobrat-Hermelin, 1997). Vitamin D has similar effects for regulating neurotransmitters, and is one that most adults are deficient in, and should be supplemented regularly. Other supplements can be shown to improve focus and attention, and often have a proprietary blend of enchanting ingredients, be wary ones that rely heavily on caffeine for their pick-me-up; chances are you already have enough. Some ones that I prefer, are “Super Neutropics Genius Consciousness,” “Alpha Mind,” or a Nicotinamide Mononucleotide Supplement. Lastly, if you get a dip of concentration a short while after drinking a cup of coffee, you can try adding some L-Theanine into it to help you maintain a longer period of focus.

4. Focused Meditation

One of my favorite activities to do with my patients is 3 minutes of meditation. It might not sound like a lot, but I believe in making small changes over time, which turn into habits, and start to create real results. Probably the best type of meditation — out of the 99 common types — you can do to keep your mind from wandering is focused meditation. This method is very simple, you sit still and focus on your breath. While you’re trying not to move, you are regulating the impulsive center in your brain, the limbic system. While you are focusing on your breath you are adding electrical activity to the attention centers of your brain, primarily your neo-cortex (the outermost layer of your brain). The hidden key of meditation is not these two steps per-say, but the resisting the urge to move, and gently bringing your attention back after it’s wandered away from your breath. I call this, “catching your thoughts.” The more you catch your thoughts, and intentionally bring your mind back to what you are trying to focus on, the more fit your mind will be; think of them as mental pushups. I recommend finding a slice of time, merely three minutes long to focus on one thing only, and using that as your new daily minimum.

5. Uni-tasking

We all know those people who claim they are excellent multi-takers, perhaps you are one of them. Let’s do a quick experiment, try this; count in your head from 1–10 as fast as you can without messing up, go… Next, go from A-L as fast as you can without messing up…. Ok, easy right? That’s because you uni-tasked. Now try this, combine the two in sequence as fast as you can in your head, A1, B2, C3, and so on… It’s much harder isn’t it, especially wen you start getting to about G. This is because your brain is not designed to do two executive functions simultaneously. Sure we can drive a car and talk on the phone at the same time, but as traffic collision reports would credit, we are not nearly as good as driving when our attention is divided. Multi-tasking is simply divided attention. Persons who are successful in conversations, relationships, vocations, (and vacations for that matter), are simply more gifted at eliminating distractions of things that don’t really matter; mind-clouding junk. Key point…focus on one thing at a time if you want to be efficient at it.

6. Create of Focus Conducive Environment

One famous writer, Francine prose, would write while facing a plain wall because she felt it was the best way to eliminate distraction. We need to create an environment where we can lock in to what we are working one. You’ve already read how distracted we are with screens. Sometimes you simply need to turn the phone off, or at the very least put it on “do not disturb.” Additionally, eye strain is becoming more of a thing these days, and one thing you can do to help you maintain focus (if you are on a computer) is take more eye breaks. I suggest after 20 minutes of intense screen time, focus on an object in the distance for 20 seconds, and make sure your screen backlight is not any brighter than the background light in the room. Lastly, headphones are an excellent way to tune out distractions, why not kill two birds with one stone and throw some headphones on while listening to binaural beats?

7. Schedule Your Concentration Time

Are you reactive or proactive with your time? Life will give you lots to do if you don’t decide specifically what you will do when you will do it. Try throwing a block of time in your calendar (if you done’ have a personal calendar I would highly recommend) to allow for your important work. This can help you feel less obligated to respond to outside distractors because you’ve already committed to doing one thing. If you’d like to know more about this topic check out my video “Stop Letting the Day Control You.

Hopefully these solutions will help you get the most out of your focus time. Please feel free to leave me comments and let me know your thoughts!

References:

Kozielec T, Starobrat-Hermelin B (1997). Assessment of magnesium levels in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).Magnes Res. 1997 Jun;10(2):143–8.

Maksimenko, V. A., Hramov, A. E., Frolov, N. S., Lüttjohann, A., Nedaivozov, V. O., Grubov, V. V., . . . Pisarchik, A. N. (2018). Increasing Human Performance by Sharing Cognitive Load Using Brain-to-Brain Interface. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00949

Becher, A. K., Höhne, M., Axmacher, N., Chaieb, L., Elger, C. E., & Fell, J. (2015). Intracranial electroencephalography power and phase synchronization changes during monaural and binaural beat stimulation. European Journal of Neuroscience, 41(2), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejn.12760

Kraus, J., & Porubanová, M. (2015). The Effect Of Binaural Beats On Working Memory Capacity. Studia Psychologica, 57(2), 135–145. doi:10.21909/sp.2015.02.689

Microsoft Corporation. (2015). Attention Spans. Canada: Alyson Gausby.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. doi:10.1037/h0043158

Mossbridge, J. (2016). The Influence of Streamlined Music on Cognition and Mood. arXiv preprint arXiv:1610.04255.

White, H., & Shah, P. (2019). Attention in Urban and Natural Environments. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 92(1), 115–120

Zimmerle, J. C. (2019). Limiting Technoference: Healthy Screen Time Habits for New Parents. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 34(2), 54–59. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=c8h&AN=135888093&site=eds-live&scope=site

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