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A Surefire Way to Sharpen Your Focus

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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How many times have you arrived someplace but had no memory of the trip there? Have you ever been sitting in an auditorium daydreaming, not registering what the people on stage are saying or playing? We often spin through our days lost in mental time travel, thinking about something from the past, or future, leaving us oblivious to what is happening right around us right now. In doing so, we miss much of life. We also make ourselves relatively miserable, and prone to poor performance and mishaps.

peaceful scene, village by the water

Be in the moment. Courtesy of margory.june via Flickr.

The opposite mental state, mindfulness, is a calm, focused awareness of the present. Cultivating that state is associated with improvements in both mental and physical health, as you will learn from the current cover story of Scientific American Mind (see “Mindfulness Can Improve Your Attention and Health” by Amishi P. Jha). It can even ameliorate mental illness.

It turns out that mindfulness training works in large part by training our ability to pay attention. As we learn to focus on the here and now, we also learn to manipulate our mental focus more generally. The ability to direct our own minds at will means we control what we think about. It is no wonder that honing such a skill can make us happier. It can also boost the performance of soldiers, surgeons, athletes and many others who need to maintain a tight focus on what they are doing.

Some people are naturally more mindful than others, but it is possible to train yourself to enter this state more often. Simple exercises performed as little as 12 minutes daily can help you become more mindful. For a sample exercise, watch this video “Learn to Live in the Now.”

Putting Stock in the Future

A focus on the now, however, is not always appropriate when you have to make a choice between an immediate desire and a future outcome. In fact, a central human fallibility is our tendency to value what we can have right away much more than we do even bigger rewards down the road. In the human brain, a later benefit feels farther off than it really is, making it less appealing. This problem, which scientists term temporal discounting, leads to overeating, overspending, abusing drugs and other problems that seem to hail from lack of self-control. But we wouldn’t need self-control if our brains did not make this unfortunate miscalculation time and time again.

squares of chocolate

As humans, we tend to overvalue immediate desires relative to future benefits. Courtesy of John Loo via Flickr.

Fortunately, there are tricks for fixing this glitch. One is to delay the more immediate reward. If you just wait five minutes before indulging in a chocolate bar or purchasing a pricey necklace or making any other stupid move, you’ll want that indulgence significantly less, about half as much, as you did just five minutes before. That minor postponement helps level the playing field, giving the longer-term health or financial benefit a fighting chance. Other tips for good decision-making include detailing the consequences of a downfall—in your diet, say, or your sobriety. Writing down the specifics of what happened in the past, or could happen down the road can boost the significance of those future scenarios. And if you’re weighing the future heavily, you’ll be more likely to make a wise choice now (see “Warped Sense of Time Heightens Temptations,” by David H. Freedman).

Live Action Mind Control

The March issue of Mind introduces another, more high-tech way of wresting control over your own mind and brain. With a technology called real-time fMRI, you can now visualize your own brain activity. You can then practice techniques that raise or lower it—thereby changing your conscious experience. To manage this feat, you have to lie inside a brain scanner while computers gather and analyze your brain activity, which is then put up on a display for you. A computer represents it as, say, a flame. You can then experiment to figure out what thoughts alter that activity. When you land on a thought that works, you change how you feel or even what you can do. People have used this technique to minimize chronic pain, which is notoriously hard to treat, by calming commotion in a particular brain region. Patients have also used it to combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by focusing on raising activity in a brain area involved in motor control (see “How Real Time Brain Scanning Could Alleviate Pain,” by Heather Chapin and Sean Mackey).

flame from fire

New technology enables people to raise or lower their own brain activity, which is sometimes represented as a flame. Courtesy of Velo Steve via Flickr.

In the future, people might boost or suppress the activity in specific brain areas to quell anxiety or speed learning. Taking the idea of controlling movements to an extreme, I wonder, too, if it might be used to enhance a person’s prowess at sports or surgery. At the moment, using this method of mind control requires a big, expensive brain scanner, so it won’t be practical for less dire applications until smaller and cheaper devices are available. But the technology seems to have enormous promise. I, for one, would like to peek at the mechanisms of my mind and try to grease the cogs.

Other feature articles in this issue highlight the mental downsides of city living (see “Urban Living Raises the Risk of Emotional Disorders,” by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg) and newly discovered powers of the placebo. The magazine also covers psychological remediation for schizophrenia and an understanding of addiction as a learning problem. I invite you to read and enjoy these offerings. Meanwhile, don’t forget to live in the now—yet put some stock in the future!


Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. SAReadersince67 3:51 pm 02/18/2013

    Interesting Ms.Wickelgren. I have recently been “focusing” on the subject of memory and brain functioning in aging subject, “me). At 60, I am, like others in our age class, wondering how long and well our cerebellums (cerebelli?) will work effectively relative to our needs or expectations in the various contexts of our lives. In particular I started studying classical guitar three years ago, and I am always making excuses to my guitar master about not be able to memorize more repertoire. He says I just don’t practice enough, but I have though he was just being kind. However, I am coming to understand that he may be correct. The factor of focus is probably part of the challenge: Some of us (most of us, all of us) have a lot to think about. But it were ever thus. I often think how the captain and crew of a large multi-masted sailing ship, particularly a man of war of say the “Surprise” genre, were tasked with operating a highly complex craft subject to many variables. Unless becalmed, you could not ever stop actively sailing one of those craft and had to bring a life time of knowledge to the various crew tasks. Yet those men (and a few women) accomplished may voyages and missions often in the worst of conditions (and sometime with people shooting real bullets and cannon at them.) They were focused for sure, eh!!! How does sailing a frigate relate to memorizing music? Well, perhaps my mind was wandering as I wrote this comment!

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  2. 2. SAReadersince67 3:55 pm 02/18/2013

    PS; Sorry about the lack of proof reading in my above comment. But I think you can figure out what I intended to type…

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  3. 3. jobyelaws 11:21 pm 02/18/2013

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  4. 4. SAReadersince67 2:48 am 02/19/2013

    Notice Editor, the comment by jobyelaws is a blatant commercial advertisement and not at all within generally accepted rules for postings on comments sites. How can people be so mercenary and a darned nuisance. It is also an insult to the Blog writer. Does SA editor police this abuse? This sort of behavior discourages relevant discussion of the topics by serious readers.

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  5. 5. goldminor 3:46 am 02/19/2013

    It is hard to get away from the spammers. Nice article and very true in it’s premise. Teaching focus and attention training should be started early in life. It adds to problem solving skills and aids in understanding others through better understanding of oneself.

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  6. 6. janiferqw 12:46 pm 02/19/2013

    upto I saw the bank draft 4 $4673, I accept that…my… mom in-law woz like realy making money parttime online.. there friends cousin has done this 4 less than 17 months and resantly cleard the dept on their villa and purchased a gorgeous audi. we looked here,

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  7. 7. jmekrut 6:32 pm 02/28/2013

    Ms. Wickelgren, I so enjoy your blog. Always informative. I would add to this discussion that real time feedback is available in a far less expensive setting than an rtfMRI machine. EEG biofeedback, or neurofeedback, has been used for many years to help train the brain for self regulation, ameliorating the symptoms of conditions ranging from PTSD and ADD/ADHD to anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s. Just Google neurofeedback and find a provider near you if are in need.

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  8. 8. collettedesmaris 6:11 am 03/14/2013

    “WE often spin through our days lost in mental time travel”? Really??! “WE are often left oblivious to what is going on around us; right now”? WE are?

    I don’t know about the rest of you folks, but I find it pretty alarming to learn via this article that obviously a large part of our society is walking around in a dazed & confused state – and driving that way too! No wonder
    our country’s going to hell in a hand basket – but really, what else can you expect from a society who spends a large part of their time off so immersed
    in cable television that they don’t even notice how “dumbed-down” it is rendering them?

    The question that the author poses in the opening paragraph of this article; along with the subsequent statements; infers that this sort of mental detachment is behavior that is fairly commonplace in our society today. I find that extraordinarily disturbing.

    My answer to that first question is : “Zip, zero, zilch, nada” … the day that I drive somewhere, and upon arrival, realize that I have no memory of what happened during the trip, is the day I stop driving. The author’s
    presumption that this sort of “checking out” during driving happens multiple times per individual, is most unsettling. The notion of a whole herd of ‘em putting themselves behind the wheel of motorized vehicles carries
    potential consequences far more serious than Wickelgren concludes, which are: “missing out on much of life”; “making ourselves miserable”; “poor performance” and “mishaps”.

    Rather; I call demonstrating zero attention while driving, “an accident waiting to happen”.

    Wickelgren then takes the reader on a journey about “cultivating mindfulness to improve mental & physical health”. Here again, I guess I am way different than
    Wickelgren and the rest of the folks she includes as she speaks in the “we” form – because being mindful is second nature to me – maintaining attentive awareness as
    I travel through each day is the norm. Here’s where I must admit accountability for being presumptuous, in presuming that a majority of the rest of society was the same .

    It is noteworthy that what wickelgren refers to as “temporal discounting” used to be called “instant gratification” behavior. I have noticed a lot of this going on – particularly within SciAm. They just arbitrarily change the standardized names for things! One has got to wonder why, and it gives rise to the thought, “will they alter the definition next?!”
    Wouldn’t surprise me at all – and it’s stuff like that that keeps me focused on the “now”.

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