March 23, 2023

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How do we regain our focus in the age of instant gratification?

18 min read

Between endless social media content, notifications pinging away on our laptops and our smartphones, unprecedented streaming options, and even watches with all the bells and whistles of a computer, our attention is pulled in more directions than ever before. Can we regain our focus?

This week, Monash University’s podcast, What Happens Next?, concludes its series on focus and attention with conversations with leading neuroscientists, developmental psychologists and experts in mindfulness and mental discipline.

Host Dr Susan Carland talks to Dr Hannah Kirk, co-inventor of the world’s first digital attention intervention for children with neurodevelopmental disorders, about how digital technology – infamously a distractor – can also be harnessed to help neurodivergent and neurotypical children alike build their attention skills and reduce hyperactivity.

Professor Mark Bellgrove’s team recently released landmark guidelines for the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, establishing the world’s most up-to-date protocols over the past two years. He discusses the individual nature of attention – and what you need to know about yours to hone your focus.

Professor Craig Hassed OAM, co-creator of one of the world’s highest-rated massive open online courses of all time, weighs in on the day-to-day changes we can make to improve our attentiveness (beyond, as he says, throwing our phones out the nearest window).

Finally, Susan talks to bestselling author Timber Hawkeye, writer of Buddhist Boot Camp, whose spiritual training has helped him teach others to live with intention – whether it’s making a choice on where to spend our time and focus, what we should eat, or even who we should date.

“Every time your attention wanders, and you notice and bring your attention gently back to where it needs to be at that moment, that’s like one rep for the attention circuits in your brain.”

Professor Craig Hassed OAM

What Happens Next? will be back next week with a new topic.

If you’re enjoying the show, don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite podcast app, and rate or review What Happens Next? to help listeners like yourself discover it.

Transcript

[Music]

Dr Susan Carland: Welcome back to What Happens Next?, the podcast that examines some of the biggest challenges facing our world and asks the experts, what will happen if we don’t change? And what can we do to create a better future?

I’m Dr Susan Carland. Keep listening to find out what happens next.

[Music]

Dr Hannah Kirk: We know that things like digital multitasking actually has a negative impact on our attention, and that’s something that’s rife in our work life these days. We’re in meetings and we’re checking our…

Professor Mark Bellgrove: I think it’s about knowing your attention system, knowing it for yourself and your own particular style. What drives it? What motivates it?

Professor Craig Hassed: Well, complex-multitasking is one of the modern myths and furphies. The human brain does not pay attention to two complex things at the same time.

Timber Hawkeye: I can stay focused on a YouTube video and get down that spiral, and before I know it, four hours passed and that’s not the best use of my time.

Dr Susan Carland: In our last episode, we looked at how our attention is being pulled in so many different directions by the increasing distractions and demands of modern life.

In this episode, we are going to find out how to improve our focus. We’ll also hear about some of the ways our experts are helping children with ADHD.

So stay focused while we again take a look at focus on What Happens Next?.

[Music]

Dr Susan Carland: Dr Hannah Kirk is a senior lecturer at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health. Her work focuses on looking at the way digital technology can help improve our attention, particularly in children who have neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.

Dr Hannah Kirk: I’m Dr Hannah Kirk. I’m a senior lecturer at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.

My research really focuses on trying to create digital tools, and evaluate digital tools, that can support cognition and behaviours in young children, particularly children who are neurodiverse, so, including children who have neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.

Dr Susan Carland: Hannah, welcome.

Dr Hannah Kirk: Thank you.

Dr Susan Carland: What is attention?

Dr Hannah Kirk: There’s a lot of different explanations as to what attention is, but if we think simplistically, we can divide it into two areas. So we can think about space and we can think about time.

So in terms of space, it is where we are directing our attention, directing our focus. And in terms of time, it’s how long are we spending time focusing on those particular areas?

So it really involves skills like switching from one task to the next, filtering out distracting information, honing in our focus, and maintaining focus for a prolonged period of time.

Dr Susan Carland: And from a scientific or clinical point of view, do you consider attention and focus the same thing, or are they different?

Dr Hannah Kirk: Well, so attention is… There is an aspect of attention that is related to focus, so it’s something that we would call sustained attention. So essentially, your ability to maintain attention over a period of time would be more aligned with what we would define as focus.

Dr Susan Carland: Tell us about the work that you do that studies focus or attention, but also, you’ve come up with some interesting ways to try to improve it.

Dr Hannah Kirk: Yeah, so typically when children in particular have difficulties in attention, the most common treatment form is psycho stimulant medication, and that can be really effective in the short-term. But what we hear from parents is that they want more options, essentially.

So our lab has been designing non-pharmacological interventions that use digital technology to essentially train those attentional networks.

Dr Susan Carland: Mm.

Dr Hannah Kirk: So we have a series of game-based tasks that run on tablets, so it’s an app and children use those at home and basically repeat these particular tasks that we know tap into core attention skills. And the hope is that by practising those tasks, we’re building and establishing those neural connections around those tasks and increasing their proficiency on those particular attention tasks.

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Dr Susan Carland: Tell us how the game works. What do the children have to do in the activities?

Dr Hannah Kirk: So we have a couple of different interventions. Our first one was focusing on attention in particular, and it was designed for children who have intellectual disabilities, including children who had autism spectrum disorder, down syndrome.

And the task – there was three different tasks. One of them was focusing on selective attention, so that is our ability to focus on important information and filter out distractions.

[Music, bubbles popping]

Dr Hannah Kirk: So they were presented with a series of fish on a screen. They’re swimming around the screen.

[Music, bubbles popping]

Dr Hannah Kirk: And they have to locate a particular type of fish, so “a medium-sized orange fish”.

And we introduce distractions that are either similar or dissimilar to that particular fish that they have to find. So the tasks progressively gets harder.

We have other tasks that look at sustained attention, so the ability to maintain your attention over a period of time, and then also attentional switching as well.

So they’re all game-based to try and be more engaging for children. They’re adaptive, so they increase in difficulty. And the fact that they’re digital means that children can do them at home, they can do them in the classroom. So more flexible in terms of how the intervention can be delivered.

Dr Susan Carland: And did you find that doing those activities did improve the focus or attention of kids? And did some work better than others?

Dr Hannah Kirk: So we found that in individuals who had intellectual disabilities, we saw improvements in selective attention, so their ability to filter out distractions.

We ran another trial in children who are typically developing, so primary school children. We ran that through schools and we saw a reduction in inattention and hyperactivity in the classroom.

So the general thought process around – it’s essentially called cognitive training – is that we can see improvements in the skills that we are directly training. So if we’re training selective attention, then we can see improvements in selective attention.

Where we’re not seeing great amounts of evidence is for far transfer. So if we’re training selective attention, are we also going to see improvements in memory? And at the moment, we haven’t got good evidence that we can do that with this type of intervention. So it’s very targeted.

Dr Susan Carland: Is there anything people can do to help – adults in particular – can do to help improve their focus? If they don’t have access to your little fish game, what could someone like me do to improve their focus?

Dr Hannah Kirk: So I think one of the things that’s really important is to remove distraction when you are trying to focus. So that might be putting your phone away. It might be just having a time where you close the door, and you are in a room on your own, and you’re minimising external distractions.

We know that things like digital multitasking actually has a negative impact on our attention, and that’s something that’s rife in our work life these days. We’re in meetings, and we’re checking our emails on our phone, and there’s a lot of switching between tasks, and we know that that can be detrimental. So it’s much better to focus on one particular thing at a time.

And we also know that lifestyle factors have an influence on our ability to attend. So really taking care of your mental health, taking part in physical exercise, trying to get as much sleep as possible. And we also know stress has a negative impact on our ability to attend. So as much as possible, trying to reduce our stress levels as well.

Dr Susan Carland: I know if I’m in a meeting that’s boring, instead of just sitting there going, “Oh, I’m bored,” my brain’s like, “Oh, I might check my email.”

And so, I wonder if it’s the inability to sit in boredom that is impacting on my focus. That if I could just sit in it instead and go, “Yes, I’m bored, but I don’t need to check if I’ve got any notifications on Instagram”, if that would actually build that focus muscle.

Dr Hannah Kirk: I guess that’s a difficult one because it’s really hard. I guess we have more choice in what we can direct our attention to, and other things to fill that space when we are bored. But I think potentially if we didn’t have those things, what else would we do? Would we just then daydream? Would we think about what we’re having for dinner?

So it’s really hard to know that if you didn’t have those options, where would you direct your attention? Inherently, if we find a task boring, our attention does naturally wane. It’s just whether we then direct that to something else, or whether we just sit with that, I guess.

And you’re saying, what is the motivation for us to continue to be engaged? And it’s really hard to do that when we don’t find something interesting. The task that we would typically find that we can focus on for a long period of times are tasks that are inherently interesting to us.

Dr Susan Carland: Right.

Professor Mark Bellgrove: Humans can’t literally sit there doing, particularly a monotonous task, for long periods of time without the attentional system starting to fatigue.

Dr Susan Carland: Mark Bellgrove is a professor in cognitive neuroscience and Director of Research at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, School of Psychological Sciences, at Monash University. Here he is with some tips on how to stay focused.

Professor Mark Bellgrove: And there are a whole range of things that will also impact on that. If you’re in a warm room, if you’re in a post-lunch dip, all these things will create a little perfect storm for your attentional system and you’ll find it very hard to concentrate for good lengths of time.

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So the solution is to do smaller pieces, do smaller packets of work, take breaks, get up, have a walk around, try to free your environment from things that you know distract you, because it’s very contextually dependent. Some people will tell you they can do homework or work with music.

Some people will tell you they can’t. So that’s an entirely individual, specific thing. So you need to know yourself, I guess, in that scenario, and know what works best for you.

But definitely, long periods sitting at a desk, or in a lecture theatre at the back when you’re more likely to nod off after 20 minutes, that’s not… your attention system isn’t designed – and we know this. We know the brain shuts down after periods. We know you lose the ability to regulate your attention in what’s called a top-down way. You exert control over your attention itself.

And we know that attention can be brought back by, for example, a loud clap.

[Clap]

Professor Mark Bellgrove: If the old example where the teacher would have a big long wooden ruler and smack it on the desk in front of a drowsy student… That actually serves quite an interesting purpose in that it’s an external cue that reorients attention, and it actually leads to a flooding of noradrenaline throughout the blood brain that alerts you, brings you back to focus, and allows you to reset your attention.

So attention actually is this really fascinating interaction between these bottom up arousal systems in the brain that serve to regulate your attention and your ability to be able to control your focus from cortical regions in a top-down way.

And it’s this push and pull between those systems that’s really critical.

Dr Susan Carland: So what you are recommending is that we start hitting the desk with rulers a lot more often?

Professor Mark Bellgrove: [Laughter] Absolutely not.

Dr Susan Carland: That is what you heard. That’s what I heard, everyone.

Professor Mark Bellgrove: But let’s be honest, for conditions where there might be an acquired brain injury, for example, like traumatic brain injury…

Dr Susan Carland: Yeah.

Professor Mark Bellgrove: Folks with traumatic brain injury have profound attentional problems. One of the therapeutic options that is often trialled is what’s using random alerting cues.

Dr Susan Carland: Ah. Like a bell ringing?

Professor Mark Bellgrove: People are being engaged in a task. It might be a “beep” that alerts the systeming, exactly the same way as the ruler slapping down –

Dr Susan Carland: Come back.

Professor Mark Bellgrove: – but not quite as aggressive.

Dr Susan Carland: So what is the reasonable amount of time? Is it the 25-minute pomodoro? Is that the amount of time the average person can have a sustained focus before they start to wander?

Professor Mark Bellgrove: Twenty minutes is probably pretty reasonable for most things.

Kids with ADHD, their attention will cycle over a much shorter time frame than that. In my experience, if you are getting them to do a task that is engaging, they can be okay for a little period. If it’s a monotonous, boring task, after five minutes, they would really have trouble maintaining their focus.

So I think it’s about knowing your attention system, knowing it for yourself and your own particular style – what drives it, what motivates it – and working within that, I think.

But of course, there are things that we can do at a more systemic level within our educational systems to help that. Long lectures aren’t ever good, in my opinion.

[Music]

Dr Susan Carland: When you think about it, we’ve always had distractions in our life. Is the secret just to focus on the things that matter? Timber Hawkeye: And so the keyword for me is, “Is this relevant for me right now?”

Dr Susan Carland: Timber Hawkeye is an international public speaker and bestselling author of Buddhist Boot Camp.

Timber Hawkeye: Because if I don’t have that filter, I can stay focused on a YouTube video and get down that spiral, and before I know it, four hours pass and that’s not the best use of my time.

So mindfulness combines everything you just said. It’s the focus, it’s the attention, it’s the discernment. Which I think is a very important distinction to make between discernment and judgement. But discerning, “Is this relevant for me right now?”

Because it may be interesting. It may be fascinating. It may be juicy gossip, but is this relevant? And if it’s not, then maybe it’s not the best use of my time, depending on what it is I’m trying to accomplish.

And then you step away from right and wrong, too: Is this beneficial, or is this detrimental?

And that’s I think what, every time you say the word discipline, that’s what comes to mind, is this ability to shift and go, “This is detrimental to my ultimate intention, and this is beneficial to my ultimate intention”.

Whatever it is, when you’re about to order something to eat, “Is this beneficial to my ultimate intention?” When you’re about to spend money, when you’re about to start dating someone.

Dr Susan Carland: You’ve had a lot of spiritual discipline training and I’m curious to know, from the great breadth and depth of the training that you’ve had, what have you learned that the average schmuck like me could learn about how to actually improve our focus?

Timber Hawkeye: In your GPS, or sat-nav – whatever you guys call it over there [laughter], when you’re driving and you’re putting in directions on where you want to go, where you are, and you’re trying to figure out where you are, you’re getting oriented to where you are. And you’re on the road and you’re in…

So pretend, in life, we’re going through things, and then we make a wrong turn, or we end up on a street or neighbourhood or an exit where we don’t want to be, and we’re lost and we’re confused. And that happens to all of us in life, not just literally in a car, but in life.

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We make a wrong turn, we take the wrong job, we date the wrong person. And I say “wrong” meaning “not conducive to the kind of life we want to lead”, so detrimental, as opposed to beneficial, not right versus wrong, just wrong for me right now.

And so we all make those detours.

So for me, having a grounding truth is like having a north star. It’s having home programmed in my GPS. So no matter where I am in life, no matter how confused I get, no matter how stressed I get, no matter what’s going on, if I have that home button programmed that at any point I can just hit that, and it’ll just go, “Recalculating”, and it’ll just bring you right back on the path.

So mindfulness makes us aware of “Why am I choosing what I’m choosing right now?”.

Dr Susan Carland: In our previous episode, we spoke to mindfulness expert Professor Craig Hassed about the challenges of staying focused in a busy modern world. Here he is with some mindfulness tips on how to keep or maintain focus.

What advice would you give, beyond time away from the phone? Is there anything else people who want to improve their focus could do?

Professor Craig Hassed: Yeah. Well, complex multitasking is one of the modern myths and furphies. The human brain does not pay attention to two complex things at the same time. So don’t complex multitask – do one thing at a time.

So prioritise your attention, keep it simple.

Practise some regular mindfulness meditation. So for example, in the morning, before you head off to work, it’s like taking the attention circuits in your brain to the gym, whether it’s just for five minutes or 10 minutes, but it’s a good way of stepping into the day in a more mindful way.

But early in the evening as well. Put some space between the working day and whatever you’re going to do that night, for example. So again, another five- or 10-minute practice at that time.

So they’re like two full stops in your day, but it can also have lots of little commas, punctuating your day, little spaces between one thing and another. So you might have just finished working on something, and you’re about to move on to the next thing. Well, just give yourself a little half-minute, just a little space, just to be present.

[Deep breath in and out]

Dr Susan Carland: Just focus on the breath in that moment.

Professor Craig Hassed: The body, just noticing what’s happening in the body. And you might notice tensions you weren’t even aware that were there. You might just notice that the mind’s distracted and thinking about something. Just coming back to the present moment.

So if you practise that, then what happens is the informal practice of mindfulness comes into play. That is, we start to become more aware of where our attention is when we’re doing something: Oh, attention back to the road. Oh, come back to just tasting your food. Come back to hearing the person who’s speaking to you.

So this sort of ability – because every time your attention wanders and you notice and bring your attention gently back to where it needs to be at that moment, that’s like one rep for the attention circuits in your brain –

Dr Susan Carland: Mm. Mm-hm.

Professor Craig Hassed: – and that’s their idea of exercise. But they’re so important because so many other things that we want to be able to do in day-to-day life depend on our ability to do that. So that’s what I’d sort of recommend.

And to manage the technology well, just reduce the number of notifications and prioritise. Do you need all of those apps pinging away the whole time? Mind you, I am speaking as somebody who doesn’t even have a mobile phone, so I’ve never had one, and… [laughter]

Dr Susan Carland: [Laughter] That’s why you’re so calm!

Professor Craig Hassed: I can manage my mental load better than most, perhaps because there’s a lot less coming in.

Dr Susan Carland: But maybe that’s the solution.

Professor Craig Hassed: Well, I always hesitate to say to people, rather than put your phone down, open the window and throw it out of the window as far as you can. But for many people – and mind you, it can be a wonderful servant, but it’s a tyrannical master. And many people are not using it perhaps well and things it’s designed for. But we do need to manage the technology better these days.

Dr Susan Carland: I think that’s a very generous read. I think if we… I think in the future when we look back in time, we’ll realise the introduction of the smartphone was the worst thing to happen to humanity. [Laughter]

Dr Susan Carland: But I can say that.

Professor Craig Hassed: I wouldn’t be surprised.

Dr Susan Carland: Craig, thank you so much for your time today.

Professor Craig Hassed: It’s been a real pleasure chatting.

Dr Susan Carland: Sometimes in life we need to stop what we are doing and remind ourselves to focus on the things that matter… Like subscribing to this podcast, for instance! I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to our guests and hopefully you’ve picked up some tips on how to maintain attention and keep focus.

Thank you to all our guests on this series, Dr Hannah Kirk, Professor Mark Bellgrove, Professor Craig Hassed and Timber Hawkeye. For more information about their work, visit our show notes. We’ll be back next week with a brand-new topic to unpack.

Thanks for listening to What Happens Next?. [Music]

Listen to more What Happens Next? podcast episodes


This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article


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