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Fuzzy brain? Improve your attention span

  • Story Highlights
  • Concentration occurs when the brain's prefrontal cortex is awash in dopamine
  • When attention falters, dopamine drops; mind wants new pleasure, more dopamine
  • Lack of sleep, stress and anger are distracting; exercise and food give brain boost

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Real Simple

Why You Focus

It's no accident that you concentrate best when you're really engaging in something, like watching a good movie, or doing something challenging, like learning a new card game. Concentration occurs when the brain's prefrontal cortex, which controls high-level cognitive tasks, is awash with the right cocktail of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other body chemicals, particularly the "pleasure chemical" dopamine (you get a jolt of this when you eat delicious food, have sex, or encounter something new and exciting).

All of us can feel distracted when we're at the mercy of internal factors, like fatigue, anger and stress.

"When dopamine levels rise, you subconsciously want more of the good feeling it gives you, so you're driven to concentrate on whatever you're doing to keep getting it," says Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Find Your Focus Zone. But when your attention starts to falter, your dopamine levels drop and you start looking for a new, pleasurable distraction to replace that dopamine hit.

Need one now? This mental exercise improves focus by challenging your brainpower. Take a piece of paper and two pens and sit at a table. Draw a circle with one hand and, at the same time, draw two squares with the other while tracing a circle on the floor with one foot. Not so easy, but are you feeling more focused? Read on.

Why You Lose Focus

It's not only online shopping that keeps you from getting your bills paid. All of us can feel distracted when we're at the mercy of internal factors, like fatigue, stress and anger, and external factors, like television and e-mail. Here are the most common attention zappers. Identify yours and learn how to regain your focus.

1. Lack of Sleep

When you're tired, you're deprived of oxygen, which is necessary for the production of chemicals, such as dopamine and adrenaline, in the prefrontal cortex. Even one night of tossing and turning can "give you symptoms that resemble ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), such as forgetfulness and difficulty maintaining concentration," says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland, in Annapolis.

How to Regain Your Focus

• Get a good night's sleep. "A good night's sleep is like pushing the reset button in your brain," says Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of CrazyBusy. You should try to get the amount of sleep required for you to wake up without an alarm.

• Have a snack. If you're running on fumes and about to head into a marathon meeting, drink a glass of water and eat a snack with a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, like an apple and a piece of cheese, recommends Hallowell. "This hydrates you and keeps your blood sugar levels even, both of which aid focus," he says. And try to skip the double espresso. "Caffeine raises your adrenaline, giving you a quick burst of focus," says Hallowell. "But if you overdo it, you'll get the jitters, diminishing your concentration."

Drifting off? Read the next section aloud. According to Judith Greenbaum, Ph.D., a coach for people with ADHD and a coauthor of Finding Your Focus, using more than one sense (for example, seeing and hearing words) sharpens concentration. Read Real Simple's guide to getting a good night's sleep

2. Stress and Anger

When you're tense, you get a rush of brain chemicals, like norepinephrine and cortisol, that cause you to hyperfocus "like a deer in the headlights," says psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino. Thousands of years ago, this was a survival aid -- your anxiety-induced focus helped you steer clear of potential predators. But today -- when stress might feel life-threatening but usually isn't -- this only means that you have a harder time focusing on work when your mind is on your visiting in-laws or a speech you have to give. Anger has the same effect. When you're irritated by something, your stress hormones rise and your concentration levels decrease.

How to Regain Your Focus

• Start moving. A quick burst of aerobic exercise relieves stress and improves concentration by flooding the brain with oxygen and activating brain chemicals such as dopamine. Learn how connecting with people strengthens your brain

Recent studies have shown that people who engage in aerobic exercise -- anything from ice-skating to taking a brisk walk -- at least two days a week -- have better concentration levels than do nonexercisers. If you've been stuck at your desk all day and a quick walk around the block isn't an option, just stand up. This simple act tells your brain it's time to be awake and act alert, says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.

• Think happy thoughts. "Thinking of things that promote warmth, connection, and happiness reduces the hormones associated with stress, fear, and anger that can impede concentration," says author Edward Hallowell. Read Real Simple's two-week stress-less plan

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