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Sometimes the demands of her hectic life are just too much for Fredi Hungate. That’s when this teacher and advisor at a Massachusetts all-girls’ boarding school heads off campus for a quick cup of coffee. “It’s not about the coffee, really,” she says. “I just feel like my brain can’t hold any more. I’ve learned that removing myself from the situation is a powerful strategy.”
Actually, Hungate is on to something. Even though society today moves faster than ever, the human brain can’t keep up. In a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Missouri demonstrated that people can keep only three or four things in their working memory, or conscious mind, at once. “Most people believe the human mind is incredibly complex, and it is,” says lead author Jeffrey Rouder, PhD, director of the Perception and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri. “We showed we can process a lot of information in those limited ‘slots,’ versus a little information about a lot of things.”
Doing what you can to avoid information overload helps your concentration skills stay sharp. Of course, keeping things simple isn’t always an option. But help is at hand: New studies show that exercise, meditation and cognitive training can improve your brain power.
For decades, people have known about “runner’s high,” the feel-good rush of endorphins following strenuous exercise. It turns out that exercise also increases mental performance and concentration. “The more you challenge the brain with exercise, the more you build the prefrontal cortex’s ability to do what you want it to do, which includes prioritizing multiple tasks,” says John Ratey, MD, whose latest book is Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008). Dr. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, suggests intricate activities like dancing and martial arts for maximum benefit. “By challenging the brain with complicated exercise, MRI shows you’re laying down new neurons,” he says. “And that effect crosses over from learning dance steps to remembering to pick up Jimmy from baseball.”
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) coach Michele Novotni, PhD, of Wayne, PA, agrees this is a real-life benefit. “You get 20 to 60 minutes of brain boost,” she says. “I encourage my clients to take their laptops to the gym and do their least preferred task immediately after exercise for peak concentration,” she says.
How about meditation? According to a study from the University of Pennsylvania, regular mindfulness training improves focus by allowing the brain’s “orienting” system, the dorsal frontal-parietal cortex, the part of the brain associated with thinking, planning and movement, to work more efficiently. Neuroscientist Amishi Jha, PhD, explains: “Our study showed that after meditating just 30 minutes five times per week for 8 weeks subjects showed improved response speeds and accuracy in various computer tasks. They were more able to control what they focused on and when.”
The study, published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, showed that both experienced meditators and newbies attained gains. “Meditation will absolutely help you improve mental focus,” says Dr. Jha, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “Regardless of experience level or lifestyle, meditation is something we can all do.”
She speaks from experience. “I had a six-month-old baby and was very stressed over my career,” Jha says. “I even had to cancel a lecture I was to give because I lost feeling in my mouth from teeth grinding.” Then Dr. Jha tried meditation: “It helped me tremendously, and that led to this line of research, to see if it would help others. Now I know it does.”
Then there’s cognitive training, which uses specific tasks to measure mental performance. “You can train people on tasks, but unfortunately, the working memory gains haven’t been shown to transfer over to real life,” says Charan Ranganath, PhD, an associate professor with the Center for Neuroscience at University of California-Davis. “Working memory is what we experience as concentration, so this is an important limitation.”
But now, University of Michigan researchers have published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that a specific memory exercise may improve performance at unrelated tasks. “This is very exciting,” says Dr. Ranganath. “But there is a lot more work to be done in this area.” In the meantime, commercial cognitive training options exist. Computer products claiming to sharpen cognitive function when played regularly run the gamut from Nintendo’s Brain Age game (approximately $20) to Posit Science Corporation’s well-regarded, in-depth programs ($395 and up).
Richard Restak, MD, author of The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love (Three Rivers Press, 2007) and clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital in Washington, DC, doesn’t dismiss the programs’ value but points out: “The more life-oriented they are, the more helpful they’ll be. A computer-based cognitive enhancement program does have some limitations unless it’s directly related to everyday tasks.”
Of course, you don’t have to turn on your computer to reap the benefits of cognitive training. Simply open your newspaper and do the daily crossword or Sudoku. “Puzzles are useful if you enjoy them,” says Dr. Restak. “By all means, do both crosswords and Sudoku, so you can exercise the different parts of your brain that deal with language and numbers.”
Dr. Ratey concurs, though he recommends Sudoku over crosswords. “Crosswords aren’t bad, but Sudoku requires you to process new information, not retrieve information you already know,” he says. “Learning an entirely new language would be better still at increasing your brain growth.” That’s because, as with complicated activities, your brain creates new connections by learning new things.
The bottom line: If you’ve ever had the feeling that you can’t focus on even one more task, project or person, you’re not alone. You’re also not without options—all those concentration-sapping conflicting priorities aren’t going away, but you’ve got science on your side when it comes to picking the concentration strategy that works for you.
“We hang onto what’s worked for us in the past, but this is a fast-paced world and we have to move forward,” says ADHD coach Nancy Ratey, wife of Dr. Ratey and author of The Disorganized Mind: Coaching Your ADHD Brain to Take Control of Your Time, Tasks, and Talents (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “Acknowledge that your life is more complicated and that you need new methods to keep on track.”
About the Author: Darcy Lewis is an award-winning healthcare writer in Chicago.