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The Scattered Mind: Finding Focus in a World of Distractions

Posted By Mark Sisson On May 3, 2011 @ 9:24 am In Personal Improvement | 91 Comments

Scenario time. You’re in the grocery store picking up the last couple of things for dinner. Pushing your cart through the small throng who also stopped on their way home from work, you weave your way through with the obligatory, alternating “excuse me” and “pardon me.” You fumble through your pocket for the list you’d scribbled last minute on a post-it. Hmmm… good sale on chicken thighs. The familiar ding of a text notification goes off with your partner’s reminder of one more thing needed from the store – spinach. You reach over and grab the onion you were looking for and go in search of the garlic. Annoying music over the speakers. Better check work email one more time. “Ooops. Sorry about that,” you remark after bumping someone’s cart. The person grimaces at you with a passive aggressive nod. Thanks. There’s the email response you were waiting for. Great, another meeting on the same issue. You’ll have to gather materials to email tomorrow for everyone. What else was on the list? Don’t forget to wash the whites tonight. There’s the garlic. Why is it necessary to waste more time on that project? Tonight is the night to fix the shutters. After dinner. No, after the kids are in bed. Man, that was a mother of a wind storm last week. It would be nice to have a free night for once. That Netflix movie has been sitting there for how many weeks? Maybe just cancel the service. Why bother? Checkout. Long line. Geez, that person has how many bags of Cheetos? Any good magazines while I stand here? Celebrity baby bumps – who cares? Next in line finally. Hmmm… didn’t know she was pregnant. Wait, the d–n spinach! Groan.

Anyone here identify? Hands? Yes, these days it’s hard to find anyone who’s not busy. Whether we’re young or old, single or married, parents or not, there’s plenty to juggle. Modern life, for all its many “conveniences,” has done little to alter the bottom line on the day’s schedule. Nonetheless, there’s a decided difference between the person who’s occupied with a task and one who’s chronically preoccupied in the midst of their obligations. Two peoples’ calendars might look the same, but their respective experiences can differ as much as night and day.

How many of us go through the day scattered, easily distracted by the extraneous details of our settings, overwrought by the mental chatter playing in our minds. In the immediate moment, we compromise job or relationship performance. We forget things [7]. We make mistakes and have to take more time redoing whatever it is we messed up (like the shopping list). Our kids, partner, or friends clearly see we’re not “all there.” (So much for affirming those connections today.) We’re left, finally, with that burned out, fried, hollowed out, jangly feeling – you know the one.

Recently, experts discovered the “filter” in the prefrontal cortex that helps us block out those extraneous stimuli [8] (and, yes, there’s a lot of that in our modern world). It’s the filter that helps us hone in on the person talking to us in a crowded room, that allows us to focus on our task in the midst of a hectic work site, that helps us remain directed on a quick shopping trip instead of getting sucked into every sale display.

As we age, this filter, well, falters [9]. The busier an environment, for example, the harder it is for the brain to resist absorbing the peripheral stuff. We’re, technically speaking, more prone to distraction. Age requires more patience and effort to focus in the midst of mayhem.

There’s an apparent upside to this age-related shift in distractibility, however. One study found that older adults – because of their typical declining pattern in attentional focus – were able to “hyperbind” information [10] – unconsciously integrate “seemingly extraneous co-occurrences” and then consciously find patterns in this information later. As the study leaders noted, this ability can have a substantial – and rich – impact on “real world decision-making.” Because they encode this additional information, older adults have more to go on when making related decisions.

It makes sense, I think. In the “primitive” context, young adults were the doers, the generative group who did the majority of hard physical labor involved in hunting, gathering, building, etc. Focus makes sense in these activities. Older members of the tribe offered leadership and advisory perspective. Wisdom and creativity are honed by seeing the bigger, broader picture, by perceiving and bringing together both the obviously pertinent and, oftentimes, less expected but illuminating aspects of an issue.

Whether we embrace the “silver lining” or not, there’s plenty we can do to fine tune our filters in every life stage. As is nearly always the case, common age related patterns needn’t be absolute destiny. Biology presents the basic content and components behind our abilities, but intention – cultivated – largely determines the precision of their use. The more we challenge the many dimensions of our cognition throughout our lifetime, the more complex – and resilient – it will be. Study authors say [11] the often recommended activities like learning a new language or playing an instrument hones our overall brain function.

Meditation, however, may offer an even more efficient means for “attentional training.” A small study [12] showed that participants who practiced mindful meditation for eight weeks showed more control over their alpha waves, a particular frequency associated with the processing of sensory stimuli – what we feel, see and hear. Other research has confirmed the benefits of meditation for concentration [13], “executive functioning” like prioritizing and goals setting, and memory performance.

What’s more? Meditation can help the brain de-clutter itself and find clear space again. Given the chance to step back from the frenzy, people plagued by scatteredness realize it’s not really about the tasks themselves (which probably aren’t that different than other people’s to-do lists). Beyond the bustle of the occasional harried day, a scattered mind suggests a deeper disintegration.

Maybe it all started sometime ago in the midst of an overwhelming stretch – the birth of newborn, an insane time at work, the circus of hosting a big holiday. We worked ourselves into a flurry, darting from task to task, letting our thoughts go hog wild jostling for our constant attention. Somewhere along the line we got used to it in a dysfunctional kind of way. It was like it had to be this way. Except it doesn’t.

Meditation can offer the space for a reintegration, a psychic culling of the superfluous and gravitation toward what’s essential. If a scattered mind suggests a random, desperate piecing out of one’s attention, meditation’s core principle – centering – is about reassembling the far-flung parts and ordering them once again.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what your mother always told you: focus on what you’re doing. Shut down the self-talk. Commit to the activity at hand. Beat back the compulsion to check your email yet again. In more meditative terms, observe and let go of each distraction. When you’re out in a busy environment, let yourself hone in by letting the rest dissolve into the peripheral pool. Focus, centeredness – whatever you want to call it – is something to cultivate throughout our lives and something that, in turn, cultivates us.

It’s the state that allows for flow [14]. Sure, not every moment of focus will bring on the rewards of flow, but the simple peace that comes from a slower, more deliberate pace is nothing to shake a stick at either. When the whirling stops and the frenzy dies down, there’s a lot more to appreciate in the moment than we may have noticed before.

Thanks for stopping by today. Let me know your thoughts on living in the “unscattered” moment. Have a great week, everyone!


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[7] We forget things: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/17470218.2010.540670

[8] discovered the “filter” in the prefrontal cortex that helps us block out those extraneous stimuli: http://www.cell.com/neuron/retrieve/pii/S0896627311001632

[9] falters: http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00245-7/abstract

[10] were able to “hyperbind” information: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100120161237.htm

[11] say: http://www.marksdailyapple.comThe role of age and inhibitory efficiency in working memory processing and storage components

[12] study: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6SYT-52K1SSX-1&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F08%2F2011&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=gateway&_origin=gateway&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=a26f255c942654ec8f9f03043de5c6e0&searchtype=a

[13] confirmed the benefits of meditation for concentration: http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&uid=2007-09453-003

[14] flow: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/flow/

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