Attention. It’s the ability to process specific details in the environment while ignoring other distracting information, explains Dr Greg Patterson, a psychiatrist at Gladstone Practice.
“There are four stages to paying attention,” he explains. “1) Being alert, 2) Choosing to pay attention to the information as it’s received, 3) Focussing or the ability to ignore external and internal (eg. thoughts) distractions, and 4) If distracted, being able to come back to a task.”
If you’ve managed to progress through each step, the information is then stored to be used, becoming part of our working memory.
It’s no secret, though, that in recent years our attention span has been dwindling as we’re constantly bombarded with new information. To say that we’re suffering from lowered attention spans, though, isn’t helpful, says Tara Hurster, psychologist and founder of The TARA Clinic. The issue with the word ‘suffering’ is that it implies it’s a bigger issue and, therefore, harder to change.
“Phrases such as ‘what has left us with lower attention spans?’ are more helpful because they suggest it’s something external and therefore something we can have control over,” says Hurster.
So, what are some ways we can gain control over our decreasing attention spans? How can we increase our ability to pay attention? Ahead, Hurster, along with Dr. Patterson, share two things you can start doing today.
Stop Trying to Multi-Task
“There has been a lot of research into the concept of multi-tasking, and from my understanding of it, humans simply can’t do it — at least not with any kind of efficiency,” says Hurster. “The brain can only think one thing at a time, and for people who have racing thoughts, that is just thinking multiple thoughts in quick succession.”
She suggests a regular mindfulness practice as a great technique to help you calm your mind, and also regain more time in your day. In this context, she explains, mindfulness helps to remove the traffic jam of thoughts at a bottleneck on the road by teaching each thought how to effectively merge lanes ahead of time.
“Meditation has been shown to influence parts of the brain — the pre-frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — which are involved in complex brain functions, such as attention, concentration and decision-making,” says Dr. Patterson.
“Mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the ‘default mode network’, active when the mind wanders between thoughts, not thinking about anything in particular. Studies have shown that experienced meditators are more able to ‘rein in’ wandering thoughts than non-meditators.”
Meditation can also influence the levels of important chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, Dr. Patterson says, including increased serotonin (promoting improved mood), increased GABA (promoting a sense of relaxation), increased melatonin (promoting rest and sleep, and also improved mood), and decreased cortisol (leading to a sense of being less stressed). Each of these enhanced functions will improve attention.
Finally, moving your body regularly can also help to increase your attention span. “Exercise is great to remove the fight/flight chemicals in your brain,” explains Hurster.
“These chemicals turn off the area of the brain that deals with higher-order thinking such as problem-solving, concentration, memory, etc, because if you are fighting a tiger, those parts of the brain will slow you down.
“You want to be as reactive as possible to save your life! Stress, anxiety and other things like pain and drug or alcohol use, increase the amount of fight/flight chemicals in your brain. So, regularly moving your body is a great way to turn the whole brain back on.”