Are you in control of your brain or is it in control of you?
Does it run like a hamster on a wheel with thoughts rushing around your head, demanding your attention, when you are trying to finish a report for work that’s due tomorrow, or when you’re bone tired and just want to go to sleep? You have no idea how to stop the incessant negative mental chatter and feel frustrated, exhausted, and stressed out.
You may think that “this is just the way it is” or “this is the price of success” and that there’s nothing you can do to calm your mind and stop the flood of thoughts, but there is. If fearful, anxious, worrisome, regretful, stressful, “what if” thoughts are familiar intruders, always barging their way rudely into your head, making it difficult to focus and get anything done much less relax and feel a little peace, I want you to know that you can change this.
You can calm your busy mind and tame your brain for improved focus and well-being by learning to consciously guide your attention.
Controlling Your Attention Controls Your Brain
Directing your attention is the answer to calming an overactive brain that jumps around from one worrisome thought to another because when you don’t intentionally focus your mind, your thoughts are largely determined by your subconscious. Your brain’s subconscious material is primarily made up of mostly negative implicit memories and fears from your childhood and past. These are mostly below your conscious awareness and cannot easily be measured or retrieved. But you feel them as anxious, negative mind chatter. Over time and left uninterrupted, this subconscious material becomes the default for your brain as it carves patterns that heavily influence your ability to concentrate, happiness, and relationships. It largely contributes to psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
In order to change your subconscious chatter, you have to change your brain’s normal patterns of operation. Luckily, you already have everything you need to do that.
You sculpt your brain with your attention.
You can think of your attention as your brain’s steering wheel. Wherever your attention goes, the rest of your brain follows. It is the gate through which all sensory information enters your conscious experience. Because of this, it influences your perception, and, in turn, your mental health.
You’re Not Paying Attention About Half of the Time
Believe it or not, studies showed that your mind is not even engaged with what is right in front of you 47 percent of the time. That means about half of the time you are not paying attention, being unproductive, and not focusing on what you’re doing. That is incredibly frustrating enough for most of us in our daily lives and jobs but think about instances where the repercussions could be very serious and mean life or death. That means surgeons, airplane pilots, and judges are not paying attention about half of the time. Do you want a surgeon operating on you who can’t focus their mind? That’s just plain scary! Lucky for us, controlling and guiding your attention is a skill you can build.
Your Attention Is Limited
Attention is the most essential mental resource for any living organism because it determines which aspects of the environment they deal with. Most of the time, automatic, subconscious brain processes running in the background determine what makes it through to your conscious awareness. This means that at any given time, millions of neurons in your brain are constantly monitoring your environment without you being aware of it. So, conscious attention is a limited resource in your brain. It involves working memory and filtering out all the extraneous information and distractions as much as it involves selectively sustaining focus.
Regardless of your intent to focus on something, your attentional space may be giving priority to anything that it considers threatening in your current environment, which is why so many of us found it harder to focus during the COVID pandemic. Whatever is happening, your brain is processing and filtering through all of the information it has right then, deciding if it’s important, and whether to file it away for your safety or let it go. While most of this information processing is going on below your conscious awareness, it still impacts how you feel and think. That’s why there may be times when you really need and want to pay attention, but your brain just does not cooperate.
Methods to Improve Your Attention
Unfortunately, it has only gotten harder to pay attention and tame the chatter in our heads in today’s 24-hour, fast-paced, multi-media, pandemic world. But there are proven ways that you can learn to calm and focus your brain, with effort and practice.
Learning to calm your brain and directing your attention is the answer to help an anxious brain settle down and focus. Being able to direct and sustain your attention to a specific desired place is the foundation of changing your default brain patterns through experience-dependent neuroplasticity. By training your brain to pay attention, over time, you can build new, healthier pathways in your brain and increase your ability to sustain focus and calm.
Just as you can work out to build up muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills through different practices. You can change your brain and increase your focus in any of the following ways:
Stop Trying to Multi-Task
Multi-tasking is a myth. The idea of multitasking was originally used to describe a computer’s parallel processing capabilities and has become shorthand for our brains attempting to do many things simultaneously. However, your brain doesn’t work that way. Even when you think you’re multitasking, you’re not.
Our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when you think you’re multitasking is that you are switching your attention back and forth and using short-term memory. Studies have shown that, while the brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once. Studies show that when your brain is constantly switching between tasks, you are less efficient and more likely to make mistakes. The science clearly shows that we are wired to be mono-taskers and multitasking actually impairs thinking.
The opposite of a stressed, busy brain is a mindful one. Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It means being aware and being aware of your awareness. It’s paying attention on purpose. Mindfulness trains your brain to focus and notice what’s happening as it’s happening. It’s learning to direct your attention to your present experience.
Mindfulness is not just a concept. It’s an active practice. In your brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system, the ancient instinctual, emotional part of your brain, to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of your brain is where your more complex cognitive processes take place. This is also where mindfulness happens. The middle of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, is highly integrated and literally one synapse away from the cortex, limbic area, and brain stem. That’s important because it allows the frontal cortex to influence the other more primitive brain regions. In other words, it can insert rational thinking, calm them down, and take control.
Train Your Brain with Meditation
Just like you can work out to build muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build attention skills with meditation. One study showed that just three months of meditation practice significantly affected attention and brain function. One type of meditation, in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Go here to learn how to do it.
The benefits of meditation and mindfulness for your brain are because of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the capability of your brain to change its form and function in response to experience. Over time, consistently practicing meditation or mindful thinking resets your brain patterns and default mode network because you are repetitively altering the way you use your brain. This is how you physically change your brain to be healthier and happier.
The good news is that even though your brain is naturally wired to be cluttered and on edge, you can calm and focus your brain by learning to guide your attention. By routinely directing your attention, you calm your brain’s fear center and strengthen your attention muscles while consciously engaging your thinking brain. Over time, with regular practice, and because of neuroplasticity, your brain can actually physically change its connections and patterns so that calm and focused become the default.
This post was first mentioned in the Authoritti5.0 Magazine