The Two Brain Systems that Control Our Attention: The Science of Gaining Focus

2.3K Flares Filament.io Made with Flare More Info'> 2.3K Flares ×

diceI’ve noticed lately that my mind has been wandering a lot so I wanted to see how attention works and how to manage it better.

It turns out a lot of us have wandering minds and struggle to stay focused. In fact, when we’re reading, our minds typically wander anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time. Voluntarily keeping our attention on one thing continuously can take a lot of effort, so it’s not surprising that I struggle with this sometimes.

Luckily, there are ways to keep our attention spans from burning out, once we understand how they work.

The two brain systems that control your attention

Our brain is split into two systems, according to Daniel Kahneman. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he calls these System 1 and System 2 (to get a full understanding of how these work, I’d highly recommend reading his book. I can only explain them briefly here, and there’s a lot more that goes into how our brains do the things they do!).

systems

System 1 is the involuntary, always-on network in our brains that takes in stimuli and process it. It’s the system that makes automatic decisions for us, like turning our heads when we hear our names called or freezing when we see a spider.

System 2 runs the voluntary parts of our brains. It processes suggestions offered by System 1, makes final decisions and chooses where to allocate our attention. The funny thing about how these system work is that we assume a lot of the things we do are purely conscious decisions made by System 2. In fact, almost everything we consciously decide on is based on automatic reactions and suggestions fed to us by System 1. Here is another great illustration of both systems at work:

Thinking_Fast_and_Slow

System 2 is in charge of anything that takes willpower and self-control, and anything that’s too difficult for System 1.

How we get distracted every day

Although System 2 is running our attention and our concentration, there’s only so much to go around, and it takes a lot of effort to stay focused on something. We’re bombarded all the time by distractions, which the System 2 part of our brains has to fight against.

Distractions come in two main kinds, which Daniel Goleman explains in Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence: sensory distractions (things happening around you) and emotional distractions (your inner dialogue, thoughts about things happening in your life).

If you’ve ever had something emotional weighing on your mind, you’ll know how hard it is to block out that kind of distraction. Goleman explains that this happens for a reason: if something is upsetting us, our brains want us to find a solution so we won’t keep worrying about it. Putting it off doesn’t help us concentrate, because we can’t truly let go of those worrying thoughts until we have a plan to work through it.

These kind of emotional distractions are the ones that plague us most, according to Goleman:

It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.

Even worse is that on average, when our minds wander they tend to skew towards negative thoughts, and focus on self-centered thoughts more than anything else.

So what’s the answer? Well, staying focused takes a lot of work. Just like our physical muscles, our attention “muscle” gets fatigued when we overwork it. Pushing ourselves to cognitive exhaustion means we end up mentally fatigued: less effective at our work, more easily distracted and more irritable.

Bringing focus back

I’ve definitely felt this myself, when I struggle to write a new post for Buffer every single day. I always wondered why I was still feeling drained by the next day, but it makes sense when you think about how our brains relax. Just because we spend time on something else doesn’t mean our brains are recovering. They need full rest periods.

There are a few ways to achieve this, which are worth working into your routine to keep your mind fresh and your ability to focus refreshed.

1. Meditate

I’ve written about the benefits of mediation before, which can help us to improve our attention spans.
Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.

Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.

2. Spend time in nature

One of Goleman’s suggestions for improving our ability to focus is to spend time in nature. This is to help our brains switch off—an experiment found that even going for a walk on a city street didn’t let the brain switch off enough to fully recover its focus, whereas walking in a park offered far fewer things for the brain to pay attention and respond to.

3. Lose yourself in something you enjoy

I love this last suggestion from Goleman and I think I’ll try to incorporate all three of these into my routine.

Goleman pointed out that when you’re completely wrapped up in doing something easy that you enjoy, your inner dialogue switches off. This lets your mind rest and recoup the ability to focus on difficult tasks again later:

The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive.

This one’s easier said than done, but the benefits to our work could be enormous so I think it’s worth trying.

Do you have a great way of switching off and letting your brain rest? Let us know in the comments.

If you liked this post you might also like The secret to creativity, intelligence and scientific thinking: Being able to make connections and The science of self-control: 6 ways to improve your willpower

Image credit: Bob Gill, Gerald Travinsky

  • http://codecondo.com/ Alex

    Hey Belle,

    thank you. I think it’s natural that writers minds wander around, some times more than others.

    This post appeared right in time for myself too.

    I definitely allocate myself time to go out in the nature, every day.

    • Belle

      Glad to hear it, Alex! I’m planning on more nature time, for sure.

  • Sue Cowley

    Totally agree, I use all 3 of those to help me when I’m struggling to write. Luckily my favourite things is gardening which does both of the 2nd two!

  • kevinkirchner

    Most practically speaking for me personally, I’m not able to get into nature during the work day (that would definitely be my first choice). So I’m interested in learning more about losing yourself in something you enjoy. Would something like a game on your phone be passive enough to allow your brain to really rest?

    I’m more of an introvert-type person so a lot of the things I can lose myself in include a lot of thinking — like the luminosity app — which is definitely NOT shutting your brain off.

    Very interesting article — ironic that I’m reading it b/c I’m having a hard time focusing on my work today!

    • Susan Kathleen Papesh

      When I am seeking a solution I sometimes play Tetris or Solitaire. These games relax my brain enough that I find solutions more quickly but I am not sure if it helps with attention :)

    • Belle

      Bummer that you can’t get out into nature during the day, but I totally get that. Sometimes it’s hard to work things like that into your work routine. Goleman actually says specifically that playing a game is not an optimal way of losing yourself—I expect that’s because you need to pay attention to the game.

      The best idea I’ve come up with so far is to play a musical instrument. If you play something you know well, you shouldn’t have to pay attention to get it right, but you can still get wrapped up in it. I wonder if drawing or journalling your thoughts could work as well?

      • kevinkirchner

        Very cool – I love playing the piano. I might give that a shot! Thanks!

    • Yesica Velez

      Try painting, even if you’ve never painted before… make circles or patterns while listening to an audiobook. Listening (or even reading) to an audiobook doesn’t require you to use your brain, but instead feeds your imagination. Which only but takes focus and stimulation, not output. It really worked for me! Try it at night before you sleep, you’ll wake up a bit more focused as well… Only do things at night which require the intake of information which is stimulating or enjoyable, but never something that requires you to give output. Like using the computer, using your phone, putting shapes together… This in a way makes you forget that you are thinking for a while.

  • Samantha Owens

    I have a really hard time shutting my brain off, because most of the things I really enjoy require some brain power. I can’t even watch a movie most of the time without crocheting or playing a game while I watch, I get too restless. Even when I go on walks I read a book while I do it :P

    I’d love to hear suggestions from others on what they do to switch off. The things that have helped a bit are music (lyricless) and at work, filing when my brain is fried and I just need a break from the craziness. :)

    • Mary Tan

      I draw as this stops me from thinking too much and helps me to focus. It’s amazing how fast time flies when I draw. If I’m reading I put on classical music as it has been proven the rhythm helps one to concentrate. Breathing exercises and meditation to start the day, also helps tremendously.

    • Elena

      Hi Samantha, I’m reading the “Getting things done” book, and it talks about having a reliable system to list “stuff”. Everything that requires an action should be written on a list that you’ll check often, that way every pending action will pop out of your head, because you know you won’t forget it. Your brain will let go ;)

  • vicki ross

    Very nice post, Beth! Artists refer to this as right/left brain, right being creative, left being analytical. Theory has it that I if you can shut off left Brain, you’ll achieve what I call the ZenZone while creating.

    • Andrew Horder

      Some scientists are now questioning the simple analytical vs creative left/right brain functional split – see this RSA Animate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI . I haven’t read Kahneman yet, I understood his 2-system concept is slightly different again.

      • vicki ross

        WOW, Andrew…reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson. I wonder if this is a discussion of labeling, that is, artists need to be utilizing the intuitive right hemisphere (creative), while the left Hemisphere knows what it knows as far as rules of composition, color mixing, etc. We use both as realism painters, perhaps not so much with abstract painters who break rules. Same, same but different?

  • Dolores Smith, ON, Canada

    Definite observations:

    Am fortunate that am located in a small town allowing me to immerse myself in nature easily and notice greater innovative and creative problem solving as well as general innovative thinking; and strenuous exercise or at worst some time running up and down stairs has definite results related to changes in thinking/info processing.

    Specifics I have noticed:
    While in nature my mind effortlessly brings up creative ways to deal with business issues, innovate on current marketing approaches,etc., as if linking up to my
    subconcious mind… undealt with iissues or observations made during the work week pop up along with unexpected creative ways to respond to them.
    Exercise allows me to think faster, process information faster…I notice that I can shift through my hundreds of work folders quickly/effortlessly and locate files also very effortlessly and quickly. Much, much greater productivity.

    If you do not have access to nature, see if you can at least focus on the branches and leaves of trees. The movement of the leaves in air drafts, the unsymetrical/random structure of branches.. as well as the green colour against a blue sky should help to clear the mind AND reduce blood pressure!

    • Conrad Wareham

      Another way to stop thoughts is to get in a comfortable sitting position relax your forehead (notice your tenseness there) and concentrate on a picture or object.
      Attention is a very important part of our being. Most of the time it is captured or attached to outer appearances, situations, or negative thoughts, emotions or identifying.
      To me attention constitutes our presence in life. It looks out there or inside us; but mostly out there. Because man has become so automated in everyday life we have let our attention follow this automated life and so we live most our life asleep in this automation; yet we think we are conscious all the time. The opposite is mostly true.
      To really be aware requires us to train our attention to not wonder; which takes conscious work. And the benefit from training our attention is that we can learn to ignore wandering useless thoughts & emotions continuously invading our mind and learn to think aright from our own will.
      Attention works in two directions. It can look without and within. We can look within at our thoughts, emotions, and body movements. It looks without at the world that causes our sensations and impressions that form our associations. Attention can be trained to look both ways at the same time so we can see how impressions coming in from the outside causes the reactions we have in emotion and thought within, from those incoming impressions. Impressions come from people, places, and things.
      In my observed opinion we are beings that live on two levels of being; that is, animal and spirit. Our brain is both a center for the reception of sensations through our five senses from the outside objective world, and impressions coming from the subjective inside world of the invisible. No one can prove that our attention comes from the brain. It could be a presence that uses the brain for it’s manifestations in our mental world. Just to make a point for those who may differ from this point of view: remember that the sun does not rise or set on the horizon; but rather comes within view or recedes from view on the horizon as the world rotates in it’s orbit around the sun.
      For those who work to train your attention to be present when going about in life or sitting in silence and observing yourself inside, one develops a sense of a presence looking though us; another I if you will, that is not formed from personality; but rather from our own essence, that has been cloaked by our personality with it’s multiplicity of I am impersonators.
      Something to think about.

  • Susan Kathleen Papesh

    I find I wander into other projects or activities more than personal thoughs. I think you are right about connecting with nature more. I am glad spring is on the way!

    • Belle

      I know that feeling, Susan. I’m looking forward to autumn :)

  • Esther Mozo

    Exercise, especially those that involve counting reps, totally relax my brain. I find that I can’t count, focus on form and think about work or negative things all at the same time! The endorphins that come after exercise also help a lot not only to relax my brain but also my body. A nice and fit body is the bonus.

    • Belle

      That’s a great suggestion. I wonder if counting steps or breaths could work in the same way for people who run or walk for exercise.

  • Abhishek Pariyar

    I have struggled with this problem all my life until I came across two things- Rhythmic breathing ( which I came across via a TEDx video of Dr. Alan Watkins, do check it out) and Meditation. I have started doing these two things and I must say, it has suddenly turned me into Yoda! :-P

    • Belle

      Awesome, thanks for suggesting that video. Glad to hear that you’ve found meditation helpful, too!

  • Kai

    From my experiences, just write all things you want to do on papers,and follow the schedule strictly. That may help your brain relax.

  • http://www.daxserver.com/ Srihari Thalla

    I maintain a daily to-do list (which I prepare before I go to bed the previous day) and this has helped me a lot to concentrate on what I do.

    I used to think about other things that I am supposed to do which I do one thing – and after this to-do list, my brain has let those other-things-thoughts off, as I will be back to see what’s left to do!

    Seems I’ve been doing something that @disqus_2LQs0kxpUa:disqus is wrote about – maintaining “Getting things done” book.

    Voila :)

    • Belle

      I love that! Some of us at Buffer do this as well, and we’ve all agreed it’s super helpful to have your to do list done the night before. Thanks for sharing.

  • Labutta Mona

    a me piace leccare la figa rasata a pelle!

  • Kelley

    Did I miss it? I was trying to understand the reference to “Econs” (vs humans). Are you referring to economists and rational choice theories of human behavior?

  • http://goddogsrunning.com Eric M Harris

    This is an awfully long article, for someone drawn-in because of a chronically short attention span. Just saying… ;)

  • Ahsan

    “Once we understanding how it works” looks like your attention span was compromised pretty quickly!

  • Stephan De Jonghe

    Have a drink of water. A wandering mind is often a symptom of mild dehydration.

  • Dan Messina

    Great article! Just happened to have finished reading “Thinking Fast & Slow”… highly recommended!

  • braindep
  • Dave Davis

    I skydive. About 10-15 times a weekend to switch off. In the air, you’re 100 percent not thinking of anything but the jump. It’s amazing how well it mentally prepares you for the week ahead. So much so that half way through a busy week, the desire to jump is sometimes too hard to resist.