Giving Your Brain What It Needs to Focus

to focus

Do you need help paying attention? That’s what we’re talking about today, from being able to focus, maybe at work, to giving the people you love and aspects of your life the attention they need. I read an interview with the filmmaker, Jane Campion, who said, “Attention is love.” So let’s love up on this important part of life by paying some attention to attention.

Today, I’m interviewing neuropsychologist, Dr. Michelle Braun, author of the book, High Octane Brain, so that we can better understand what our brains need in order to be able to focus on what we want to pay attention to.

You’re reading the transcript of an episode of the How to Be a Better Person podcast. If you’d rather listen, click the play button below.

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Michelle, I’m so happy to have you here. Welcome. So a lot of us have been more focused on preserving our memory as we age, but I wanna talk about our attention or the ability to focus. Can you tell us a little bit about the part of the brain that’s responsible for attention?

I’m so glad you asked that, because you’re right. There is such a focus on memory and preserving memory. And as a neuropsychologist, I have often wished that we could focus a little bit more on attention because attention really is the gateway to memory on one hand. And on the other hand, I got goosebumps when you talked about attention as love, because it really is.

We think a little bit about the different geographical regions of the brain that each of those areas and functions require. So attention really is more of a frontal lobe function for the most part. So if you imagine putting a headband on your head, kind of where a traditional headband or a set of headphones lies on our head at the top of our head, everything in front of that, which is more than half of our brain volume, is our frontal lobes. And that is our inner CEO, if you will. That is the area that is dedicated to attention and complex processing. It’s very integrative. And so it brings together a lot of other parts of the brain into a synthesized whole.

And conversely memory is a little bit more of what we call medial temporal. So if you imagine your ears as a landmark going in about an inch and a half in towards the center of your head is on both sides, the right, and the left, a little curled thumb-shaped structure called the hippocampus, which is your memory switchboard. So yes, they are in different regions of the brain. They are interdependent, but attention really is that moment to moment of awareness and engagement that forms the foundation for memory and also forms the foundation for our relationships and our success in many ways.

Ooh, wow. Awesome. Honestly, when I thought about interviewing you, I was like, oh, I wanna find out how to pay attention to my work when I needed to focus. And I do wanna know about that, but I’m so glad that you’re pointing out this deeper role that attention plays.
And it makes me wonder, is there a difference between attention and focus? Because I think we put a lot of emphasis on focus and, I don’t know, is that different than attention or not? Because it seems like maybe it is.

Great question because we oftentimes conflate those in our society. And I believe if we look at focus as being kind of the frosting on the cake, attention is the cake itself. From a neurological perspective, we have all kinds of different types of attention. We have divided attention, selective attention. We have attentional switching. So there’s a whole buffet of attentional subtypes, but getting to your point about attention as love and engagement, we can think of attention as immersion. As a way of savoring.  As a way of engaging more deeply. Whereas focus, I feel is much more akin to the ability to quickly pay attention.

One of my favorite books along these lines that draws a really important distinction that hits on your point is called Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by Guy Claxton. And he really takes this differentiation that we’re talking about and beautifully illustrates it. So he talks about the idea that we would never try to turn up the heat to rush a lemon meringue pie to get done faster because it would collapse. Or that we would never try to quickly unravel a tangled fishing line because that would never work. We would have to take our time.

So paradoxically attention allows us–if we think of it in its all its broad framework– it allows us the permission to take time to savor. Whereas focus is that much more check a box, get that done. How do we navigate our world in that busy framework that we all exist in?

Right. Oh, that’s really interesting. So there is a difference. I love that. So I guess that I wanna ask you about focus first, because I think that that is a higher urgency. This whole relationship to time thing is already baking my noodle. So we have to get back to that.
But let’s just say,  a lot of us feel the pain of, we gotta get something done. We have a certain amount of time to do it. We’re sitting at our computer. We’re like, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna to do it. And then like your phone dings and you wanna go check your email and did  anybody like your post on Instagram? That kind of a thing. First of all, just what is that doing to our ability to focus? And does that relate to our ability to get into that more timeless attention mode?

I like to think of our ability to meaningfully engage in a task and to be successful at it as requiring more than focus and requiring kind of that deeper attention that you’re referring to, where you really need to, in some cases that back track on a theme that you’re thinking of or add information. And that is not always linear that requires stopping and reflecting.

And you’re right, when we get those interruptions from pings or vibrations or knocks, we get pulled off of that kind of country road that are on. That we need to be on in many ways to add value to the type of task we are performing at any given moment. And so the impact of that really in many ways is a dilution of our ability to meaningfully add to a task. So we might leave a task feeling like, gosh, I feel like I kind of scratched the surface on what I could add there, but I feel like I didn’t really deeply consider it.

And so there are so many ways that when we get pulled off, we pull ourselves off of that country road. We kind of are pulling over at a rest stop, taking care of business, looking at the map that isn’t even related to the road, and then getting back on. There’s an emotional impact to that. It’s a cognitive impact that dilutes our attention, but there’s also just sort of this lack of fulfillment because we’re not as able to engage. And if we can’t emotionally engage, that’s going to create this cycle likely of us welcoming some of those interruptions a little more. And it puts us into this unwitting position of almost looking for the interruptions and expecting them. So this opportunity cost of innovation, creativity, and meaning is what we have to contend with.

I’m so glad you talked about, we come to kind of expect the distraction or even go looking for them, because I feel like that is what I’m starting to do. It’s like, oh, I have to go down this country road, but maybe I don’t really want to. What about that bird flying overhead? You know, I go looking for the distraction. Man, if you could help me figure out how to get back onto the country road. Do you have tips for us?

Yeah. The struggle is real. I experience it all the time. And I think there is that bi-directionality with it. I think we are so increasingly used to this super highway that is kind of going right in parallel with that country road and we’re looking over at that, like, what am I missing? Did something really big happen? Everyone else is looking over there. And then we’re also hearing the noise from that. I mean, metaphorically and sometimes literally. And so we have an opportunity though, to become a commander in some or a manager of our physical space in a way that can help us be more in charge of those distractions.

So an example of that, the brain is so great at going into automatic modes of different types of attention depending on where we are physically in space. So if we imagine that we’re at our desk, when we are in flow. And we can define flow as a state of immersion on that country road where time can pass and we will look at our clock and be like, wow, five hours has passed or many minutes have passed and I had no idea the time work I was in.

If we’re seeking that experience, which most of us find great emotional fulfillment in, we can physically yolk that experience to a specific location, for example, at our desk. And, and it can be anywhere of course that you find flow. Whether that’s a chair or desk, a sofa, whatever. The key is when you are engaging in a distraction, whether that is something you want to do, you’re being pushed to do it internally, or whether you’re being pulled to do it by the device itself, I recommend changing your physical position.

So either moving to a different chair to do that other task to check email, to respond to a message. Or even just practically from a time standpoint perspective back the chair away from the desk, so that you’re physically in a slightly different geographical space. And by doing that over and over, your brain over time will start to associate flow with the physical spaces you are in and the ability to step out of flow with those other spaces. So you then exert some sort of control without really kind of depriving yourself of some of those distractions that you might want at times.

As writers and people who are creative, we recognize that sometimes when your brain wants to  look at the bird or seek out a distraction, it’s actually a manifestation of an inner question that you are looking for information to then inform what you’re doing. So that’s another piece that can be helpful is drawing that distinction between, am I seeking this information to add value to what I’m doing currently? Or am I seeking it to sort of give myself a break. And both are fine, but modulating your physical space depending on what the inner aim is of that distraction seeking.

Oh, that’s so cool. I cannot wait to try that. I have a chair in my office that I kind of jokingly say, oh, I’m on vacation now sitting in my chair. So maybe I can just take that one step further and either have that be where I concentrate or maybe where I go to blow off some steam. I wonder if there’s anything else you wish more people knew about attention?

Yeah, well you hit the nail on the head earlier when you were talking about that distinction between attention and focus. And I wish more people knew what that distinction was because attention is in many ways a gateway to our inner satisfaction. If we can modulate that, harness that more purposefully.

So there’s one technique that is wonderful for that, and it’s called mindfulness. And many people have heard of that. Mindfulness has really gained a lot of momentum in the last few years, because it really is a way of paying attention in the moment in a present oriented way, non-judgmentallly. And it’s this unfolding moment to moment awareness that’s simple, yet difficult to do. And it really is the gateway to improved mood, improved sleep. It actually has been shown to enhance attention itself in daily life and even grow that memory area that we talked about earlier that hippocampus, which is the memory center. So it has real experiential benefits. It has very strong neurological benefits.

And it often when people are able to engage in a present moment oriented way, there’s just this savoring and satisfaction. And that idea, again, that attention is love, especially if that’s shared with others. So thinking about mindfulness as a specific tool to use can be endlessly helpful in a number of ways. And it’s important to know that the newer research on mindfulness, whereas in the past, we used to focus on needing to have maybe 20 minutes of solid mindfulness. Now there are therapeutic benefits shown even after just a couple of minutes.

So we can easily fit this into our daily lives and know that the process of trying to pay attention in the moment for all of us is going to be interrupted by inner thoughts. And to expect that, to welcome that, yet to proceed in spite of that. And having that realistic expectation oftentimes allows people to keep it up longer, because everybody has to start again with it over and over often, many times within the span of two minutes.

Right. I’m so glad you mentioned that. I’m gonna share my kind of favorite mindfulness based technique that I’ve been using lately in tomorrow’s episode. So I hope folks will come back and listen to that. But when you’re sharing mindfulness with someone who maybe has heard about it, but hasn’t tried it, how do you kinda guide people toward to getting started with mindfulness?

One way is to think about where you lose time when you engage in a task, what is that task? And if you can identify what that is, whether looking at a sunrise or listening to a song you’re likely mindful at that time. And so then seeking out other experiences that allow you to feel similarly, that’s the definition of mindfulness is really that presence. Being so present that you’re savoring and enjoying. And then people can extrapolate from that. Then you can kind of purposely try to harness that feeling if you can yoke to what you have already experienced.

That’s so great. Thank you so much. When you said ‘lose time,’ I was thinking like, oh, that’s when I’m checking all my various tabs on the internet. But you mean like get so immersed in the present moment that you kind of lose touch with time being a thing that is ticking by, right?

Absolutely. Yeah. Kind of like a time work, like you’re wondering how did that time go by?  It didn’t seem like it did. It just went by in a flash.

Very cool. I love kind of the relationship between attention and time that we started to explore here. So that’s really great food for thought for me. And thank you so much for sharing all this wonderful information with us. For folks who would like to connect with you, where can they find you?

I am on the website, www.drmichellebraun.com. And I also have a blog on Psychology Today. There’s a contact page on my website. If you ever wanna reach out, please do. I’m always excited to talk about these, these different topics and try to personalize them.

Daily Tiny Assignment

Think about how you can set up your space for focus. Which also includes picking a spot for where you’ll indulge in your distraction. This conversation has actually got me realizing that I need to venture back out to the What Cheer Writers Club in downtown Providence, which is an amazing and serene co-working space, at least once a week. I launched this podcast there, booking time in the podcast studio to write and record my episodes. And I was so focused there. I’m saying it here so that I will actually overcome inertia and get out of the house. I hope that you find your focus spot too.

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