Shape Your Brain for Success
29 February 2008 Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD
Just like muscles, your brain can weaken, but weakened synapses may not show such obvious symptoms. Lucy Jo Palladino explains how concentrating on your 'focus zone' can help strengthen the brain for both multi-tasking and sustained attention.
The brain consists of about 100 billion neurons, and amazingly, every brain is a work in progress. It continues to make new connections – called synapses – in response to the choices you make every day. When you habitually multi-task in today's high-speed world, what happens inside your brain?
CONTINUAL BRAIN CHANGES
Brain neurons connect with each other at an astonishing rate. The adult brain has 100 to 1,000 trillion synapses. For a long time scientists believed that the adult brain was incapable of change. New discoveries now show that 'plasticity' – the ability of the brain to change – occurs throughout life. Neurons continue to make new connections, form new pathways and rewire the brain during adulthood.
Plasticity is a result of what we practice day to day. For instance, brain imaging studies using magnetic resonance images (MRIs) show that over time, as new taxi drivers learned their way around London, they enlarged the part of their brains responsible for navigation.
It's customary to think that the brain influences behaviour, not the other way around. But your brain shapes your behaviour and your behaviour shapes your brain.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
It takes time and practice to reshape the brain. The London cab drivers navigated around the city all day on their jobs for two years. Repeated practice is how we sculpt our brains, and repeated practice requires sustained attention. But sustained attention is a rare commodity today. We live in a world of interruptions, distractions and demands. Your brain's ability to sustain attention – so you can purposely shape your behaviour and your brain – may be slipping away unnoticed.
Like muscles, the brain synapses and pathways that you use get stronger, and those you don't use get weaker. But unlike muscles, thoughts are not visible. A glance in the mirror warns you when you're getting out of shape, but in the brain, weak synapses aren't as easy to notice.
The dangers of the digital age include incessant work demands, high stress, feeling rushed, no time for intimacy, lost family time – the problems we see every day. But the most overlooked danger of digital-age distraction may be unseen – namely, the weakening of pathways for sustained attention in the prefrontal lobe of the brain.
THE CEO OF THE BRAIN
The prefrontal lobe, the newest part of the brain, is the seat of 'executive functions' – the brain's CEO. It's the centre for attention, planning, logic, information processing, structuring, abstract reasoning and decision-making.
The prefrontal lobe is the part of the brain you use when you multitask. This activity is fueled by dopamine, a brain chemical in the adrenaline family. So when you multi-task, you feel sharp, energised and alive! But when you continually switch from computer to PDA to cell phone, what aren’t you doing?
You aren't sitting in quiet contemplation, spending time in nature, or connecting with someone you love. These activities generate serotonin, the brain chemical linked to a sense of well-being that keeps adrenaline brain chemicals in check.
In other words, when you multi-task, you're training the CEO of your brain to split attention, not sustain it. Without meaning to, you're conditioning the repetition of adrenaline-mediated synapses, which then become more dominant and automatic. Over time, your brain's CEO will favour reactive, not reflective thought. This crucial, decision-making part of your brain will gradually lose its ability to slow down, step back and consider what's going on.
YOUR FOCUS ZONE
When you keep up with technology and the rapid pace of life today, you pump adrenaline brain chemicals that increase your alertness. But stimulation improves attention only up to a point. After that, too much stimulation causes attention to become scattered or too narrow. The range of just-right stimulation where your attention is at its best is called your focus zone.
In your focus zone, you feel both relaxed and alert. Your thinking is clear, and your productivity is high. You adapt to the demands of today's rapidly changing world without losing critical brain function. Inside your focus zone, you strengthen the attention pathways that are necessary for both multi-tasking and sustained attention. But outside your focus zone – whether you're under or over stimulated – you weaken them.
The skills and strategies you need to stay in your focus zone are learnable. High achievers, like Olympic athletes, use them to great advantage. They psych up to stay motivated through long, boring hours of practice, but limit their level of stimulation during exciting, high-stakes competition.
You, too, can practice these techniques and get results, even when you're under pressure to perform. When you learn to stay in your focus zone, you protect the brain pathways you need for sustained attention, and shape your brain for lasting success.
'Find Your Focus Zone' by Lucy Jo Palladino was published by Simon & Schuster Ltd in paperback at £12.99.