Can you train the brain to learn to concentrate?
I am about to have an electromagnet discharge applied to my head once per second for eight minutes.
I move nervously in the huge black chair with metal armrests that stand in my way to the door.
“You just have to relax,” says Mike Esterman, the researcher who will administer the download.
For him it is very easy to say: it is the one with the magnet in his hand.
I came to the Laboratory of Attention and Learning in the United States to try to teach my brain to concentrate better.
Esterman and his colleague, neuroscientist Joe DeGutis, have devoted almost seven years to a training program to help those who are easily distracted, like me.
So far, his methods seem particularly promising for war veterans with problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, as well as people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But what I want to know is, are they able to improve the distracted mind of the average person who tends to postpone their duties?
And if this is possible, can you apply the method to me? Please?
“Normally it is very difficult to modify a ‘normal’ operation in one that is above the average or higher,” says the researcher.
But after taking a look at my test of “continuous concentration” online, it is clear that my case does not fall into the normal category.
I got 53 points, more than 20 below the average (you can take the test in the link at the end of this article).
“You can definitely improve,” says Esterman, and invites me to Boston for a four-day intensive course.
Hope for change
After a decade of neuroscientific studies, it is known that the adult brain remains malleable throughout life and that it can change for the better.
But – and it is a “but” very big – to change anything in the brain, we must focus. What happens then when what is complicated is the mere act of concentrating?
Nearly 80% of students and 25% of adults admit a chronic tendency to not finish homework. And more so now that the internet and smartphones offer a countless number of distractions.
According to the psychologist Tim Pychyl, of the Carleton University, in Canada, and author of the book “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle” (“Solving the puzzle of procrastination”), the problem is mainly emotional: distraction is a mechanism that is activated in moments of stress to deal with problems.
“We have a brain programmed to prefer the immediate reward.” Postponing tasks is a way of saying, “I’d rather feel good now,” he says.
“But willpower is like a muscle … with time you can strengthen your resources of attention.”
Objective: the brain
And this is exactly what DeGutis and Esterman are working on.
Its program points to the brain’s “backbone of attention,” which links regions of the prefrontal cortex-the part of the brain above the eyes that helps make decisions-and the parietal cortex, the “control table” of our senses. , which is above and slightly back of the ears.
This is the part of the brain that is activated when we give deliberate attention to a task. For it to work, activity in another part of the brain-what is known as the “default mode network,” responsible for wandering, creativity, and not thinking about anything in particular-must be reduced
Studies with scanners showed that the right side of the dorsal care network does most of the work.
People who do poorly on tests like DeGutis and Esterman show more activity in both hemispheres, suggesting that they have a greater inclination for the left side, less efficient.
So we started with an MRI so that Esterman can determine the region of the brain that needs stimulation.
The test is not as bad as I feared. At first.
During the first minute it feels like popcorn is bursting in the skull. Five minutes later it’s really annoying, like they’re constantly tapping me on the head.
In addition to the magnetic stimulation, I submit to training sessions with computers, where an image appears on the screen from time to time.
The exercise consists in pressing the space bar when a specific combination appears as fast as possible.
Three days later I have not improved anything.
But suddenly, something clicks. My score gives a jump of 11-30% of hits to 50-70%.
I begin to have a strange and sudden awareness of what is happening in my mind.
I realize, for example, that I missed some answers because I was thinking about how to write this article or what my son was doing at that moment.
DeGutis believes that this is an important milestone. Being aware of what you are thinking is very useful to try to stop the distraction before it takes you too far.
However, the doctors insist that they have not given me a complete test. Normally the treatment lasts about eight weeks.
But it is clear that it has had some result. I improved considerably in all the tests I did and I feel more calm and concentrated in general.
Is it really possible that my brain has changed in just 4 days?
“Not structurally,” the experts say in unison. However, the study has not been in vain.
What these results suggest, they tell me, is that I use the same resources but more efficiently.
Being focused is not about emptying all your energy into a task, but about allowing the brain to be occasionally distracted and gently nudging you back to the right path.
Stressing about being distracted only releases a flow of hormones to the brain, which do not help at all.
“When you’re not too anxious or too absorbed in a task, the receptors for norepinephrine (a hormone responsible for concentration) in the prefrontal cortex, called alpha 2-A, are turned on, if you get too stressed, they go out,” he says. DeGutis.
So, ironically, it seems that what explains my state of permanent distraction is that I try to concentrate too much, which is counterproductive. It is a vicious circle.
Nature and yoga to help the mind
Then DeGutis gives me the bad news.
“The effect will probably fade in a week or two,” he says.
Apparently brain training is like physical exercise: you have to keep doing it or you’ll end up as flabby as you did at the beginning.
They tell me that contact with nature helps with concentration and they also suggest that I join a meditation class or do yoga more than once a week.
At the end of the story, however, the most important thing for me is that I went to Boston to ask if my distracted brain can be educated.