People who know me well will confirm that I frequently have the attention span of a tse tse fly. Take these columns as an example. Most of them get written over the course of a week in a series of fifteen minute increments. Fifteen minutes is just about the maximum time I can focus on the structure and content of a piece at a single sitting. After that, I have to go chop wood, wash dishes or hike the abandoned golf course across the street. What I’m pretty good at, however, is continually returning to the task at hand and working on it until it ultimately feels finished.
Rather than put a label on this way of being, like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), I prefer to apply John Medina’s Brain Rule Number 4: We (meaning you, me and our children) don’t pay attention to boring things for very long. John presents pretty compelling evidence – which he states flat out is bad news for many teachers and Powerpoint presenters (and parents?) – that almost all of our brains tend to tune out after about ten minutes of listening to someone speaking. We need to begin to feel something or we go numb or become distracted – the brain is very much an emotion-processing, novelty-seeking organ.
Some people though, can stay tuned in and pay close attention for more than ten or fifteen minutes. Paul Burgess at the University College of London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Sylvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, think they know what part of the brain is responsible for this uncommon capacity for “cognitive control”- the rostral lateral prefrontal cortex. Also known as Brodmann Area 10 (BA10), this frontopolar brain region spreads across the area above both eyes. It is twice as large in humans as it is in apes, and it’s the last area to become supercharged by myelinization. It’s also the area that I apparently have not taken great opportunity to robustly develop. As a result, I am easily distracted by the cats, Archie and Lulu, sneaking up onto the kitchen counters, or by arriving email, or by my partner running the DR wood chipper out in the garden. But I’m distracted even more harmfully by thoughts like, “I suck at research,” or “I can’t make money in the stock market,” or “Who would want to read anything I write, anyway.” These kinds of internal distractions keep multitudes of yours and my great ideas from ever making it out of our brain pans and into the world.
Attention Can Be Paid
The good news is that we can do things to diminish distractions and strengthen Area 10. Taking this need for stronger cognitive control to heart, Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong developed an educational program in Denver for pre-schoolers and kindergartners called Tools of the Mind. Mind Tools allow kids to learn by doing, by acting and role-playing a variety of everyday scenarios. They improvise in the moment in order to provide the emotional engagement that is key to strengthening Area 10. This method of learning is far from boring and apparently works to strengthen the neural fibers that help regulate emotion, impulse control and the ability to pay attention – prefrontal executive function housed primarily in Area 10. Kids exposed to Tools of the Mind later end up scoring off the charts on state exams.
I find this research personally quite compelling. The most memorable classes I had in grad school were the ones involving psychodrama, role-playing or improv. And today, when I prepare for a class or a talk, I often script the full allotted time out in detailed, ten minute increments; and then, when I feel fully prepared, I often simply show up and wing most of it. This process feels like my brain attempting to move me in the direction of increasing connectivity and neural integration.
A Mind is a Good Thing to Monitor
Another activity I frequently find myself drawn to is insight meditation, which Inner Kids has shown to be especially beneficial for children (Though I actually meditate less than I would ideally like to. Thus the need for a contemplative community?). In his new book of the same name, Dan Siegel refers to the beneficial results of this contemplative activity as Mindsight. And much neuroscience research has been done and is being done on long-lived zen Buddhists and Carmelite and Franciscan nuns in the laboratories of Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, and Andrew Newberg at Princeton.
Oops. Time to go. I think I hear the padding of little kitty feet out on the kitchen counters …