Senior Times Magazine
by Kendra Siler-Marsiglio, PhD
Feeling unmotivated, unfocused, or in a “fog”? Life in the Information Age makes these sensations more common than ever. Read on to learn the science behind “cerebral congestion” and how to refresh your mind.
Science is showing that there are three major reasons that our brains are getting tired from attention demands.
Reason 1: Too much mental activity and not enough down time. When we are attentive and completing tasks, our minds are functioning in the central executive mode. If we aren’t in central executive mode, our minds are oftentimes wandering. Mind wandering provides our brains a needed break; it also allows us to solve complex problems using creative capacities that we aren’t harnessing in central executive mode. If you aren’t letting your mind wander enough, it may wander off itself. One of the focuses for Dr. Alice Boyes, a blogger for Psychology Today, is to help people with resting their brains to increase productivity and mindfulness while decreasing anxiety.
Reason 2: Too frequently “switching” between activities. Ever heard of the “attention switch”? Daniel J. Levitin, Director of the McGill University Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise and Vinod Menon, PhD, Director of the Stanford Cognitive & Systems Neuroscience Laboratory in the Stanford University School of Medicine found that the switch between mind wandering and attention is housed in a part of the brain called the insula. It’s only been in recent years that researchers are discovering what this brain structure actually does. Think of it like a switch. The insula can quickly help you get between two modes of thought: externally oriented attention and internally oriented attention (self-related thought). The issue: Use the switch too much in a given period, and you can wear it down temporarily. It needs down time! Dr. Levitin reports that switching too frequently causes us to feel tired and even dizzy; he likens the dizzy feeling to the feeling you’d get if you were seesawing rapidly.
Reason 3: The degradation of our “attention filter.” Our minds evolved the capacity to orient our attention to alert us to what is dangerous or threatening in our environment. However, with today’s constant information flow, we can become overwhelmed, and then, confused about what is important. The overburdening of our attention filter means that we need to be even more mindful in our efforts to let small things go and prioritize.
According to Dr. Levitin and Dr. Boles, here are some great ways to refresh your brain:
When you are doing a task, give it your undivided attention. This can be easier said than done. Start out with single-tasking for one minute. Each time your mind wanders to the past or future during the one minute, gently bring your attention back to your single task.
Get physical. You don’t need to run a marathon, you just need to do what feels comfortable. Even stretching for five minutes can get your creative juices flowing, decrease stress, and recharge your brain. As always, check with your healthcare professional before starting any exercise regimens!
Get outside. As with exercise, nature helps you activate parts of your brain that are different from those responsible for the central executive mode. Take a stroll or eat lunch outside. If you are walking, have your eyes wander from side to side to reduce stress.
Listen to music. Did you know that listening to your favorite tunes can improving attention and improve your social skills?
Partition your day into project periods. For instance, if you keep up with friends and family with electronic media, do it during a designated BLOCK of time. Checking email and Facebook constantly throughout the day strains your attentional resources.
For more information about refreshing your brain check out Dr. Levitin’s New York Times article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/hit-the-reset-button-in-your-brain.html?_r=0.
Kendra Siler-Marsiglio, Ph.D. is the Director of Rural Health Partnership at WellFlorida Council.