If you want to know if the Internet had destroyed your focus or not, answer these question:

Do you get bored after reading just a couple of paragraphs from a text?

Do you step into your room just to forget why you’re there?

And do you constantly have this craving to jump off from a mentally-demanding task to open up your Facebook or Instagram?

If your answer to one the above is yes, you are probably suffering from a shattered focus.

Neuroplasticity and How it Defines Our Behaviors

Think of your brain as a power grid with streets, roads, and highways. Each time you think, feel, or act, a combination of those pathways are lightened up.

Some of those pathways are more traveled. Those are our behavioral habits such as smoking or exercising or mental habits such as being constantly anxious about the future or being optimistic and seeing everything through a rosy lens (Yes these are habits too and can be changed).

neuroplasticity
Fig 1. Strong Pathway VS Weak Pathway

Each time you think a thought, feel an emotion or act on a specific task, you are strengthening their pathways in your brain. Repeated enough, those pathways become so strong that the corresponding thought, emotion, or action becomes automatic.

Let’s say you’ve had enough of constantly suffering the terrors of a vague future and the anxiety that comes with it and you want to change that.

Given that the antidote to anxiety is keeping your focus on the now, you must strive to master your mind and keep it in the present.

When you trying to do so, you are building new neural pathways around that old dreadful pathway of constant anxiety.

Initially, creating this new pathway requires substantial effort and attention. The same way that driving on an unpaved road is more laborious than on a highway, practicing this new habit would be more difficult than simply giving in to the old habit.

BUT …

Each time you practice the new way of thinking, you are making its pathway stronger and smoother. Meanwhile, the underlying pathway of the undesired habit is gradually beginning to decay.

This process of rewiring your brain is called neuroplasticity. In other words, our brain is plastic and we can potentially modify its structure.

It is crucial to note the word we use is plastic, and not elastic. This means that forming new pathways is arduous. Once they’re formed with depth, they can lock you in specific behaviors or thought patterns and.

Once we wire a new neural circuit (pathway) into our brain, we long to keep it active. — Nicholas G. Carr

Given the concept of neuroplasticity and its power, let’s see how impulsive usage of the internet is rewiring our brain to forge a fragmented focus.

How the Internet is Destroying Your Focus

The internet seizes our attention, only to tear it into pieces.

Before the proliferation of the media, internet, and now the social networks, the primary medium for absorbing information was reading.

Reading books, for instance, requires a practice of thought, one that demands sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It requires you to place yourself at what T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call “the still point of the turning world.”

Now, look at the practice of reading books from the lens neuroplasticity. When trying to retain our focus, we are keeping the neural circuits (pathways) of focus active, hence making them stronger.

Unfortunately, this habit of reading took several massive hits with the shifts in the technology of information medium. Initially, the emergence of Radio, TV, and now the internet and social media.

Bring to your mind the type of content you consume on the prevalent social media networks i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc.

How much time do you spend on each single content on those networks before you move on to the next?

How much effort and focus do they require?

And how often do you get engaged with these networks throughout a day?

broken focus
Fig 2. Broken Focus

For me this realization was horrifying.

We are constantly jumping from one small fragment of content to the other. One-minute video on Instagram, followed by less than 10 seconds view of other posts. Jumping to Facebook to scroll through the feed and consuming nugget-sized content.

 

Take a step back and look at the big picture of the way you use the internet

Do you see what’s happening?

One minute here, two minutes there, jumping and jumping from task to task, content to content and each jump endures in matters of minutes if not seconds. This multitasking is an inherent product that comes with using the internet and has become a habit that drains and destroys our focus.

This is how our attention span is breaking down. We are rewiring our focus circuits and creating attention spans of trivial length and power.

This is the part where I’ve seen people and friends smile as they resonate with the examples of a broken focus:

You start to read a book or a lengthy article; after reading a paragraph or so, you feel a sense of restlessness, or you feel bored and you crave to jump to another tab on your browser or move on to the next content in your feed or simply jump off to your phone and scour your Instagram.

The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem. You become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought. — Don Tapscott,

Thanx to neuroplasticity though, rebuilding your focus is feasible.

The best approach to changing mental habits by far is a simple mindset. Knowing that if push forward, next time, it would be slightly easier.

How to Rebuild Your Focus

1. Strengthen Your Focus the Natural Way

Perhaps you have been to a gym or at least seen the scene where people pull up weights.

When you repeat lifting up a weight, which is heavy for you, you will feel a slight pain in your muscle.

The feel the pain or burning of the muscle because your cells are breaking down.

After that, when you rest, your body notices the broken down cells.

This tells your body that there are higher demands from it.

So what happens next is that your body, in addition to rebuilding those cells, builds an extra layer of cells atop them as well, and provides you with more muscle power. This is why bodies grow in size after a period of working out.

This process is analogous to rebuilding focus. The practical point is this:

  • pro tip. Next time that you start to read a book or text and the boredom monster creeps in, do not give in to it. Instead, try to at least keep on reading for a couple of minutes more. These extra couple of minutes are precisely where you are stretching you focus and making it stronger.

After several trials, what you will notice during next attempts on reading is that you won’t get bored as quickly as before. This means that your attention span has grown slightly and can keep out the boredom monster a bit longer.

This is the natural way of rebuilding focus like the way a swimmer builds his/her body without having to attend the gym. There is, however, a more direct way of strengthening focus which resembles going to the gym directly and pulling up weights.

2. Prefrontal Workout for Improving Focus

Prefrontal workout is a fancy name for meditation.

One of the areas in the brain that mediation drastically affects is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) of the brain which is the seat of all the human feats i.e. imagination and creativity, willpower, decision making, problem-solving, and of course focus.

Brain scans of people who have meditated for just 11 weeks show significant growth in the gray matter of their PFC which translates to having more focus capacity.

  • Pro tip: To meditate, designate a specific time and place for it. Sit comfortably with a straight spine and your feet on the ground, Close your eyes and start breathing. There two major points here. First, you have to focus on your breath. You can focus on the sensation of inhaling or exhaling in your nostrils or you can focus on your chest or belly when you breath moves them. Second, as soon as your mind wanders and you notice it, take your focus back to your breath.

Meditation itself is simple (not easy), but it would benefit you when you turn it into a habit which is the tricky part. However, you exploit the mechanism of habit loop to more readily create the habit.

3. Be Protective of Protecting Your Focus in the First Place

Now that you know how your daily seemingly-benign behavior can turn into a mental habit, you can approach things more mindfully. Always ask yourself:

How is this approach, behavior, attidude of mine, going to change me over the time.

Do you use GPS like me? Do you outsource your memory into digital devices as well?

On the surface, such behaviors might seem harmless. But, collectively, and in the long run, how are they going to reshape us?

I would like to end this article with a quote from the Roman poet Horace:

Rule your mind, or it will rule you.

In Summary

  • We are what we repeatedly do. Our repeated actions and thoughts become imprinted in our brain in the form of neural circuits. After they are formed, we long to keep them active and they operate on their own without asking our repetition.
  • Neuroplasticity enables us to make new neural pathways in our brain and bypass the old habits.
  • Constant exposure to social media and consuming nugget-sized content repeatedly is fragmenting our focus and attention span.
  • With a shattered focus, we cannot concentrate on any subject for a long span of time and we get bored quickly.
  • Continuing a couple of minutes more when feeling bored, is like pulling up weights for our focus and makes it stronger over time.
  • Meditation is a perfect workout to directly improve concentration and focus.
  • With whatever new technology, medium, etc., you get involved, pause a moment and ask yourself: How is it going to change me in the long run …
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