We all know that meditation has a myriad of benefits. It strengthens our immune system, helps us to manage stress and be more intune with our emotions… Meditation also helps us with something that’s becoming increasingly difficult these days: It increases our ability to focus. With the advent of technology, we now have increasingly shorter attention spans. We no longer want to read long books. We have an ocean of Tweets to read instead. We don’t want to watch long documentaries. Instead, we can pass the time looking at 1-minute cat videos. What’s more, we’re under a constant attack of stimuli by technology. We sit down to work and our phones keep pinging with messages. We try to write a report but receive email after email. Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that the average human attention span has shrunk nearly a quarter in the past 15 years! This is why meditation’s ability to increase our focus is so important for our daily, academic and professional lives.
Five years ago, researcher Sara Lazar set out to prove that the effects of meditation were bogus. She conducted a study that was supposed to show that meditation didn’t affect the human brain at all and that whatever effects we felt after meditating were a placebo effect. However, she ended up proving the exact opposite: that meditation physically changed the human brain. The news quickly made its way into all news outlets. We suddenly had tangible proof that meditation can do an array of things, such as increase a person’s focus. But how and why is meditation able to do this? Why does meditating help us to concentrate?
Sara Lazar’s study was simple: She recruited a group of participants, gave them an 8-week long program and regularly took brain scans of each individual to see if there was any visible change in their brains. To her surprise, there was. After following the 8 week program, various areas in the test participants’ brains had visibly thickened. One such area was the posterior cingulate, which is associated with self-reliance and how often our mind wanders. Another was the left hippocampus which is associated with memory, cognition, learning, and emotions.
Following the publication of Lazar’s work another researcher, Adam Moore decided to conduct his own study to see to what degree meditation affected our concentration. Moore’s study revolved around 40 participants who meditated 5 days a week, only ten minutes a day. After 16-weeks Moore realized that the participants levels of concentration had increased significantly compared to before.
So, we know the how. But why does meditation increase our focus? Imagine you’re at the gym for the first time in a long while, lifting weights. You start small but go every day, doing the same movements, increasing the weight you’re working with bit by bit. A couple of weeks go by and as you’re walking by a mirror you suddenly realize that your arms look much bigger than they used to. You can clearly see that you have toned up your muscles and it’s only now when you realize that all the time in the gym has paid off.
Meditation works the same way. Sitting down and watching your breath might sound like a simple task. Though it’s actually pretty challenging because it means that you will try to be aware of your own thoughts, and your immediate response towards them. It means that you will try to invite your attention back to your breath, to your sensations, or to whatever keeps you in that moment when you realize that your thoughts were wandered off. Mindfulness helps you be fully present in the moment without forcing anything, with no, or at least minimum effort. This is why you gradually begin improving our focus as you practice meditation. In time, you become more and more mindful throughout our daily life, no matter what activity we’re engaged in. So put plainly, meditation means engaging and training the parts of your brain that are in charge of your focus and concentration, like your posterior cingulate and left hippocampus. That being the case, it’s no wonder that these areas of the brain grow bigger after you meditate for a short while, now is it?
Considering the facts at hand, it’s clear that mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to increase your focus and concentration. However, there are some mindfulness tricks that you can try throughout the day to help you out, particularly if you’re new to meditation and are having a hard time with it.
When you sit down for a guided meditation, one of the directives you’ll receive most often will be to turn your attention to how your breath feels going in or out or to focus on a particular part of your body. When you do this, you hone in on certain senses in our bodies. But you don’t necessarily need to be meditating to do so. As such, one of the things you can do to improve your focus is to create a sensation in your body and focus on it. Take a look at your hands. Squeeze them as tightly as you can for a few moments then let go. Now close your eyes and focus on how your hands feel? What does this sensation feel like? How long does it take to go away? How do your hands feel after the feeling has gone away?
Though “touch” is a good sense to focus on, it’s not the only thing you can rely on to help improve your focus. Another is sight and therefore, observation. Pick up a familiar object and place it in front of you. Now stare at it as long as you’re able to and try to take in every single detail that you can. Keep check of when your mind begins to wander and make a point of bringing your attention back to the object in question. What do you see? The more you do this, the more you’ll improve your focus and, for that matter, your mindfulness.
A last practice you can try involves music and another one of your senses; your hearing. Put on your favorite musical piece and listen to it carefully. Don’t just pay attention to the lyrics (if there are any) but try to notice the beat, the rhythm and the background instruments… What instruments can you hear, and which ones dominate the others? How does this particular piece make you feel? Does it evoke any memories or imagery? Don’t be afraid to explore and observe these things that the music gives rise. Just remember to not be swept up by them so much that you forget to hear the music.
These are just a few mindfulness tricks that you can use to help you increase your focus. But as always, we’d love to hear from you! Do you have any trouble focusing or concentrating? Have you ever tried such exercises? If you have, what exercises or activities have helped you to increase your focus. Share your experience with us!