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Attention, all or nothing


Research has shown how hyper-connection and constant distractions directly impact our cerebral biology. We are becoming less able to concentrate on tasks that take time and require great attention owing to boredom or fatigue; the fact is that we are out of practice Multitasking seems more fun, or we deceive ourselves into thinking that it makes us more productive. What actually happens is that when we try to simultaneously perform two or more tasks attention splits, diluting concentration in each of these activities. So we're neither here or there. Someone who talks on the phone while doing other tasks is not really doing either task properly. Instead he or she is responding automatically, using mechanisms that worked before and which have become a habit. Generally when we do several things at once, we become a kind of an automaton. As for multitasking, the limitation for our brain implies that we cannot take on more than 4 items at once, especially when one is new and we know we are not in a state of 100% concentration.

The attention of 21st century people changes every three minutes, according to research by the University of California. Our attention switches between the inbox, our computwww.mer, our mobile phone conversations with colleagues, and more. We have incorporated constant interruptions into our daily personal and professional lives as part of what is normal. This new normal—what the American military began to call back in the 90s, the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous)—is very stressful for our brain. Our prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, is related to the brain’s amygdala and stress affects communications between them. As stress rises, there is also increased release of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine in the prefrontal cortex. What are the implications of this phenomenon? Bear in mind that the main functions of the prefrontal cortex are to plan, prioritize, memorize, decide, and regulate emotions. The chemistry that causes stress leads to overriding these functions, so you become more disorganized, confused, irritable and impulsive—in short, less productive.

If we observe children and their relationship with the environment, we can see how they concentrate so long their interest does not fade. The appearance of a new object involves an instantaneous shift in attention towards it. That’s why children rarely manage to focus on the same thing for long time. By this I do not mean to say that our brain has not evolved since we were kids, for with age the stability of our attention increases. However I do want to point out that the over-stimulation to which we are exposed today makes us focus more on the external stimuli knocking on the door of our attention without consent, instead of on the internal drive selecting the stimuli to concentrate on. Somehow, this VUCA world infantilizes our attention, downgrading it to that of a child. The main difference between adult and child is that we can direct our attention, guide it consciously and keep it focused on certain objects. Willpower in this process is the key; if there is no will, our attention returns to behaving like when we were kids, somewhat involuntarily. The sources of voluntary attention are found to be related to the appearance of language. As such, the ability to think about and express what we want to pay attention to allows us to direct our actions. Motivation, not stimulus is what makes our attention become focused on something concrete. That’s why having moments of introspection—to discover and connect with whatever motivates us—is crucial for controlling our attention.

When we are focused, a curious phenomenon occurs in our brain; the presence of gamma waves observable in an EEG which demonstrates our neurons are working fast. Put another way, this shows the coordinated activity of various neuronal groups. This has a lot to do with high-level cognitive processes such as attention, consciousness, creativity or reasoning; and interestingly also with high-alert states and explosive responses, where we need to pool all our resources together just as a matter of survival. In reality this is a phenomenon of integration, since different types of information—auditory, visual, memory, among others—processed in different parts of the brain provide an integrated perception of reality. Gamma waves are a manifestation of this integration.

How can we generate gamma waves? As I said earlier, upon working introspectively, also while performing tasks requiring focus on calculation, when looking for information about something of interest to us, when we do repetitive and pleasant tasks, when we mediate, when our curiosity is aroused, when we learn something that touches us emotionally, after resting—these are some of the countless activities that trigger our gamma waves, but which are not always on our agenda.

We know that attention is a phenomenon that exists only when we give 100% of ourselves—just 95% is no longer attention. The benefits of focused attention are enormous; apart from making us more productive, it also makes us feel better. Research shows that we are happier when we are focused on something in the here and now, rather than when we let our minds wander. Besides if we focus our attention on what we are doing, we are more likely to do a good job.

Marta Romo

Marta Romo es coach ejecutiva, consultora y escritora. Licenciada en Pedagogía por la Universidad Complutense, Máster en Dirección de Recursos Humanos por el CEU y en Neurociencia aplicada al Liderazgo y la Creatividad por la Universidad de Chicago. En la actualidad, es socia de Be-Up, junto con Pilar Jericó y Juan Carrión , cuya misión es ayudar a que las organizaciones sean más competitivas a través de la innovación en la gestión y el desarrollo del liderazgo, la colaboración, el talento y la transformación positiva. Ha publicado diferentes libros sobre neurociencia y es profesora en varias universidades y escuelas como la EOI o la Universidad de Barcelona. Es una habitual en revistas de management y participa semanalmente en las Manañas de RNE y otros programas.

Marta Romo is executive coach, consultant and writer. Graduated in Education from the University of Complutense, Madrid. Also holds Master’s degrees in HR from CEU, Madrid, and in Neuroscience Applied to Leadership and Creativity from the University of Chicago. Currently a partner at Be-Up with Pilar Jericó and Juan Carrión, where the mission is to help organizations become more competitive through innovation in management and leadership development, collaboration, talent and positive transformation. She has published various books on neuroscience and lectures in several universities and academic institutions such as EOI (Escuela Organización Industrial) or the University of Barcelona. She regularly writes for management journals and participates weekly on RNE (Spanish National Radio) Morning sessions and other programmes.

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