Focus Pocus

Well, I’m back in the city again. A few days in Florida with my mom filled me up on oranges (and blues and greens). I feel sunny inside, even if it’s not so much outside.

With the return to city life came the return to Twitter, CNN, texting, and emails. (I could have continued them through my trip, but chose to take a fairly full break.) And, happily, the Times, which today published a great article on the science of concentration. We know we’re living in the Age of Distraction; Winifred Gallagher wrote Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life to refocus our attention on our control of the matter: “…your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.” (‘My experience is what I agree to attend to.’)

It’s like that old Ann Landers advice: no one can take advantage of you unless you let them. We can only be distracted by incessant emails if we choose to obsessively check them, or keep that notifier on. We can choose to wake up and run to our devices, or we can choose to first gather our thoughts at another table.

But what about those taxi rides / offices / airports / companions full of noise and distractions, out of our control?

Ms. Gallagher advocates meditation to increase your focus, but she says there are also simpler ways to put the lessons of attention researchers to use. Once she learned how hard it was for the brain to avoid paying attention to sounds, particularly other people’s voices, she began carrying ear plugs with her. When you’re trapped in a noisy subway car or a taxi with a TV that won’t turn off, she says you have to build your own “stimulus shelter.”

And a bit of practical advice:

She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption.

The last interesting takeaway was about scientists’ use of rhythmic light to assist our concentration. Regular, tiny pulses of light can create gamma waves in the brain, which are associated with focus and perception. This direct synchronization of neurons is interesting — I’ll be sure to consider strobe lights for my office — but I’m surprised the article did not mention music, a much more accessible assistant. Electronic music, with its lack of narrative and focus on atmosphere, does a great job of consolidating the fluctuations of the mind. (I posted a few favorite albums for yoga last month.) As background music, it’s often better than silence for concentration. There are even albums like “The Brainwave Suite” that promise to create alpha, theta, or delta brain waves with various ambient soundtracks. (I don’t know why they left out gamma.)

So, hopefully we can all learn to focus amid the symphony of modern life a bit better. Or we can stay on our smart phones, walking straight into traffic, and wait for Darwin to weed us out.