Ability to Concentrate Isn't What It Used to Be

When you are rolled into the operating room at the hospital, you want to know that the surgeon is ready to concentrate on your procedure. When you board a jetliner for your next vacation destination, you want to know that the tower crew is rested and ready to direct the pilot through dense airport traffic.

Concentration is vital in some professions. Even in our everyday lives, though, we all need to concentrate—to avoid traffic accidents, to get the job finished, to remember important information. But with today's world filled with flashing images of MTV, quick news reports, and fast-food restaurants on every corner, are we capable of concentrating as well as we used to?

Before we answer that question, let's take a closer look at concentration, and its sibling, attention. Attention, says Richard Petty, M.D., is a global term, used to describe a state in which you are interested in everything going on around you. Concentration focuses that attention on one specific thing.

Staying in focus

"It's called the cocktail party phenomenon," says Dr. Petty, an Atlanta doctor who specializes in internal and metabolic medicine. "When you're at a cocktail party, you have a high level of attention because you're excited to be at the party, but you concentrate on one conversation."

Attention and concentration developed in humans as defense mechanisms. Early humans had to be constantly vigilant or be eaten. But it's difficult to sustain a high level of attention for long periods of time without getting stressed out, Dr. Petty says.

Stress is good in small quantities, but too much stress leads to burn out, accidents, or illness. Think of your life today. Stress? That's your middle name, right? Hurry here, hurry there, with never enough time in the day.

So, with all this stress and a culture that thrives on short takes, can we concentrate? Dr. Petty says that although no studies prove it, his gut feeling is that it's more difficult to concentrate these days. "One of the best ways is to look at the very high incidence of ADD [attention deficit disorder] in this country," he explains. "It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world at this level."

One contributing factor to difficulty in concentrating, he says, may be too much television. "We are bombarded by so many different stimuli that it's hard to concentrate on just one," he says. Some experts have pointed out that a child's attention span is now about 7 minutes—because that's the length of time a program runs before a commercial break. In Europe, Dr. Petty says, attention spans seem to be longer—perhaps because there are longer gaps between commercials.

A concentration tune up

To help tune up your concentration skills, Dr. Petty offers several tips:

  • Cut back on the amount of television you watch, or your children watch. "I don't want to say, 'Thou shalt not do this,' he says, "but we need to reduce the amount of time that people spend doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV."

  • Get enough sleep. "You can't have a normal attention span and quality attention without good sleep," he says. The old saying about not burning the candle at both ends applies here.

  • Avoid too much stimulation. Although caffeine or nicotine can give you a quick boost, that boost lasts for only a short time, and then you crash.

  • Pay attention to what you eat. A high-fat meal can leave you feeling lethargic, and not because the body needs the extra blood to help digest the food. Research has shown that you feel sleepy after eating a meal high in fat or refined sugar because these foods change the composition of the amino acids entering the brain, Dr. Petty says.

  • Try to stay calm and relaxed. "We all know that if you take exams, the more anxious you are, the worse your memory is," Dr. Petty says. He recommends taking a short break of a few seconds to a minute every hour or so at work to break the tension cycle. "Look up, rub your shoulders, breathe a little bit. That often works wonders," he says. Just taking a moment to breathe deeply and slowly helps you re-center yourself, he says.

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