If you’re like most people, you may have a hard time channeling your attention span for more than a few minutes — maybe even finding it harder to stay focused each time. Periods where you personally invest in a task at work or a presentation can sometimes shift as abruptly as our own moods. You might have accepted that these lapses in attention inevitably happen, and it’s just a matter of getting yourself refocused when you catch your mind wandering, but until recently, there wasn’t really a scientific way to do that. Now there might be — a secret that lies in retraining electrical activity inside your own brain.
The study was recently published in the scientific journal Neuron. Until recently, neuroscientists thought of brain waves as just a side effect of activity in the brain — that our thoughts and feelings generated different wavelengths — but the new study shows that the nature of the wavelengths actually plays a factor in how the brain functions and allocates one’s attention span.
Intrigued by this possibility, the neuroscientist Yasaman Bagherzadeh at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had a team of researchers study brain activity in 20 healthy adults to further understand the relationship between attention and brain waves. One type of brain wave, known as alpha waves, pulse at a rate of approximately 10 times per second, and work to filter out distractions. It’s like audio-editing software that can filter out the loudest sounds in the room to hone in on voices.
Throughout the study, the test participants were asked to keep their heads beneath the monitoring device while they sat back and watched a coded pattern on a computer screen. The center of the screen showed a simple pattern of lines. At the beginning of the test, the lines appeared blurry. The only real instructions the test subjects were given was to somehow stare at the lines in a way to make them less blurry — with no further goals or rules for how they could look, so long as they kept their heads in place.
What the participants were looking at was a reflection of their own alpha waves — that altered slightly at each moment. When the subjects tried to concentrate on the moving pattern by shifting their focus, they were rewarded with a clearer pattern. The researchers took note of their brain waves. “In general, we are not aware of what is happening in our brains,” says Bagherzadeh. “But we saw that [people] can control their brain activity.”
Even though the patients didn’t realize it at the time, they were altering their own alpha waves. The scientists reasoned that this brain wave work was training the participants’ attention. After the screening, the researchers then tested their attention spans. They found something important during this step. By strengthening the alpha waves of one side of the brain, they had also changed where people directed their focus when performing a subsequent task.
While this concept has existed for decades and isn’t all that different from phone apps you can buy that offer to boost your brain power. These programs, however, tend to make substantial claims that are hard to prove, while the MIT study takes a look at what occurs inside the brain rather than just giving you something to focus on to boost your powers of attention.
Due to your brain’s natural wiring, if you turn your face to the right, alpha waves on the brain’s left side react. As these alpha waves strengthen, people are less likely to be paying attention. If you reduce the waves on the brain’s left side however, it becomes easier to focus on what’s happening at your right.
As the participants focused on the display screen lines, alpha waves grew stronger on one side of their brains and weaker on the other. Half of the subjects had been asked to make the left-side alpha waves stronger than the right. The others were given the opposite task. When the subjects shifted the strength of their brain waves as the scientists wanted them to, they were rewarded with a high resolution image before their eyes.
An hour after the subjects were given this basic training, they were asked to look at the center on another screen. On a loop, images would either appear on one side of the screen or the other. Each time it happened, participants were asked to shift their focus to the new object, while still focusing on the screen’s center. They were then rated by how quickly they shifted their attention to recognize the new image.
From the numbers, it was clear that the recruits responded more rapidly to the side of the brain they had previously trained to focus. The same thing happened when they were shown pictures of places and shapes, and they focused on the same sides they trained to be more attentive. Further studies will look into how long this bump in attention lasts after the training is over — as well as to see if other brain waves are involved in maintaining our attention spans — but the progress is promising, particularly when it comes to noninvasive ways to boost attention spans.
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