Fresh. Fit. Focused.: Maintaining focus while studying part III: A scientific approach


Melissa Schmitz, Staff Writer

The past couple of weeks, I’ve tackled focus in a variety of ways, and this week I will finish by looking at science. According to the famous Farb Study, there are two ways of interacting with the world when it comes to focus. The first is called the default network, and the second is known as direct experience.

The default network requires very little mental energy and is the “default” way in which you experience the world. The primary brain areas involved in this type of focus include the medial prefrontal cortex [general problem solving and “higher thinking”] and the hippocampus [memory]. These areas become active when there’s little happening or when you’re thinking about yourself or others. In this mode of thinking, you take in outside information, process it through a “What does it mean?” filter, and add your own interpretations. For this reason, it’s also called the narrative mode. There’s nothing particularly bad about this narrative mode; it’s useful for strategizing, planning and goal setting. However, limiting yourself to this mode inhibits direct experience.

Direct experience is the mode of attention where you experience life in “real time” and enable yourself to better perceive sensory information. It allows you to get closer to reality [rather than narrating a dream world] and experience it more accurately, making you more flexible in your response to stimuli. Have you ever been daydreaming while walking to class and then run right into someone? You probably wish you were more engaged in direct experience at that moment. This direct experience can inhibit the distraction of narrative functioning, but this benefit comes with an energetic price. In direct experience, additional brain areas become more active, such as the insular [perceiving bodily sensations] and the anterior cingulate cortex [ability to switch attention].

If you‘re immersed in narrative, there are things you can do to bring yourself into direct experience. If you’re stressing about some big tests while trying to study, try washing your face and focus on how the cool water feels against your skin. A more popular suggestion is to take a deep breath, though you may also want to try stretching, as well [sound familiar, yogis?]. But anything you can do to bring yourself into this wholly sensory experience will help you focus on your studies, because it allows you to focus on what’s in front of you as opposed to outside events.

Putting this into perspective, let’s consider another study. Participants were split into two groups, one that practiced switching between these two states regularly [common in meditation] and another that did not. Practicing awareness of these two states facilitated the switch between states, whereas those who did not practice had more difficulty and tended toward the default. According to Kirk Brown, a researcher in this study, high mindfulness allows people to be more aware of unconscious processes, have greater cognitive control, and a greater ability to shape what they do and say, as compared to unmindful people, and this can actually have a long-term impact on how your brain functions.

Why do we have to be reminded about this? Why doesn’t it just happen? John Teasdale, formerly a leading mindfulness researcher, suggests, “Habit. Therefore, it becomes easier to get into that mode with less effort. It’s a skill and it can be learned with some initial effort investment. It’s not difficult to do; it’s something you can already do. What’s difficult is remembering to actually do it.”

The best way to practice mindfulness is to be observant of what’s going on around you, which can be impossible when you’re constantly bombarded by distractions like social media. So try starting out your day by limiting these distractions and doing something that requires a focused and quiet mind. It can be homework or even a morning workout. Whatever you do, practice it as often and you will eventually have the focus of a Tibetian monk! (Well, maybe.)

Good luck!