Monday, 27 December 2010

Cooking and concentration

I come from a family where we cooked. My mother, a doctor, cooked every day from scratch. Vegetables were prepared, meat casseroled, sauces made, stock bones boiled, cakes baked. She bought locally, she used seasonal vegetables (often grown at home) and knew what to do with left-overs. We made our own bread, chutneys, marmalade. What I learnt from her, in easy familiarity in a family kitchen, I find is fashionable today.

For years, my cooking was more functional than fun. With children to feed, and working fulltime, I still did as she did and cooked a meal every day from scratch. I still do. But now, with a bit more time on my hands, I am cooking more thoughtfully, enjoying it more and becoming more experimental. Now my pleasure is no longer purely in the end result and feeding my family – who have always loved food and never been picky over vegetables or difficult to please – but now there’s something more.

When making a cake, I cream the butter and sugar by hand, marvelling at the alchemy that transforms these two simple ingredients into a creamy, whitened base to which I gently add the beaten eggs, emulsifying the fat and whisking in the life, before adding the flour and placing it in the oven for its final transformation.

Now I watch TV cooks in the way I once watched my mother. Seeing Nigel Slater transform black bananas into a cake, I was soon in the kitchen creating a concoction of ground roast hazelnuts, chunks of dark chocolate, along with those black bananas, and the result was a spectacularly delicious take on my usual, rather perfunctory banana loaf.

I have my mother’s old, 1950 Penguin copy of Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food (with original ‘decorations’ by John Minton), which makes wonderful reading, alongside my ancient Delia Smith and more contemporary Nigella Lawson, lurking amongst other cookbook treasures.

But it is the slow, methodical putting together of ingredients that pleases me now. Taking the time to measure, weigh, sift, whisk, beat, tear, chunk or chop ingredients, meditating almost on the process as step by step I create the small daily miracle that could be a jar of marmalade, a loaf of bread, a Moroccan stew, an orange and lavender cake – or a freshly boiled egg with hot buttered toast. The alchemy that is creating and cooking food is a wonderful way to concentrate the mind.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Spanish edition

Spanish edition to be published on January 18th 2011... and I shall be in Madrid for publication to promote the book.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Was your granny right - is fish good for your brain?

Regular research studies suggest that eating fish is good for you because it supplies a source of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), but you could be forgiven for wondering why there's so much fuss about them. Just how essential are they?

Very, is the short answer. Omega-3 EFAs are critical for our health, and the development and function of our brains in particular. We have to get them from our food, as we can't manufacture them ourselves.

Why do we need omega-3s?

While Western diets tend to provide excessive omega-6 fatty acids, many are relatively lacking in omega-3. This matters, because the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diets should be around 3:1 or less, but for most of us it's nearer 10:1 and in some cases as high as 20:1. Not only that, omega-6 competes with omega-3 for conversion to its respective EFAs, so a high intake of one can leave us deficient in the others.

"What's more, some people are more susceptible to a low ratio," says neuroscientist Dr Alex Richardson, a senior research fellow in physiology at Mansfield College, Oxford, and a member of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids. "And some people may also have an in-built inefficiency in their conversion process, making them even more susceptible to deficiencies. Symptoms of low omega-3 status, which we know can affect neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain, can include mental health problems ranging from depression, mood swings and anxiety to behavioural problems like ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia."

Could we get enough from our diets?

Cold-water fish like mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon and sardine are an excellent direct source of the omega-3s our brains need, and the current Food Standards Agency recommendation is that we eat four 140g portions of oily fish every week. But when was the last time you ate a herring? If we followed these guideline we would get enough omega-3, but it's not quite as simple as that. "Many things can contribute to low omega-3 status," says Dr Richardson. "One is our high intake of not only omega-6 but hydrogenated and trans fats, found in highly processed junk foods that are high in vegetable fats. These can block the conversion of omega-3s, as will a lack of any one of the co-factors necessary for conversion - vitamin B3 and B6, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc, to name a few. Stress and some viral infections can inhibit conversion, while excessive drinking and smoking both help destroy these crucial fatty acids. So it's imperative that while upping your intake of omega-3, you cut out the junk."

Can EFAs help improve our mental health?

Dr Joseph Hibbeln, of the National Institutes of Health in the US, published research on fish oils and depression in The Lancet as long ago as 1998. He claims omega-3 deficiency may have an affect on mental health, and suggests that the increase in depression rates could be linked to our vastly increased use of vegetable oils, and the corresponding increase in omega-6 and depletion of omega-3. Other studies have shown that 1g of EPA (an omega-3 fatty acid) every day can be as effective as Prozac and Seroxat in tackling depression - without the side effects.

How much do we need?

The recommended therapeutic dose of EPA is 1g per day for those with mental health problems or 500mg for those without. That's 1g of EPA, not 1g of oil, something to consider if you're buying supplements. "Supplementation isn't necessarily a bad move, if you're improving your diet and cutting out processed foods," says Dr Richardson. "But only if you take a supplement that gives you what you need. Cod liver oil provides some omega-3, along with vitamins A and D, but this and ordinary fish oils can also contain a lot of saturated fat. And if you took enough to obtain 1g per day of EPA, you would risk vitamin-A toxicity. Livers detoxify, and as cod swim in some pretty polluted waters, it's worth checking that your supplement carries no risk of containing mercury, PCBs or other contaminants."

What's the vegetarian option?

"Flax seeds and flax oil provide the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, but this still needs conversion to EPA and DHA, another fatty acid, whereas fish oil doesn't," says Dr Richardson. "The body isn't good at making this conversion, because it's so dependent on numerous co-factors. Some knowledgeable vegetarians therefore choose an algal-source DHA supplement in addition to plenty of flax seeds or oil and green leafy vegetables that provide ALA."

What are the other benefits?

There is also some research-based evidence to suggest that omega-3 EFAs, which have an anti-inflammatory affect, also help protect against coronary heart disease, as well as Alzheimer's Disease and rheumatoid arthritis. There's even evidence to suggest that omega-3s can help with benign prostate disease. As far back as 1986, Dr David Horrobin published research in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showing that exposing cancer cells to EFAs like EPA inhibited growth and could enhance the effects of chemotherapy. "Omega-3 EFAs are no miracle cure," says Dr Richardson. "But their benefits are increasingly relevant in our malnourished, stressful and ageing society. We ignore this at our peril."

So your Granny was right... fish is good for the brain.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Slow down...

You know the feeling. From the moment the alarm clock goes off to the time you set it again, is increasingly a blur. Somehow you get through the day, but by the end of it you can hardly remember what you've done, let alone who you've seen or what you've eaten. Life in the fast lane, it would seem, is running away with you.

Trying to do too much, too quickly, in an effort to stay on schedule may be a symptom of 21st century living, but it's beginning to take its toll both emotionally and physically.

The have-it-all dream has turned to a do-it-all nightmare and for women in particular who are trying to manage their lives. So much so that in a Top Sante survey 43% of women said they took time off work for stress, while nine out of 10 said that they had too many roles to juggle in their lives.

It was to examine questions like why we continue to live like this, even when we know it's detrimental, that Carl Honoré wrote his book, In Praise of Slow. It describes a worldwide movement emerging to challenge the cult of speed.

"The book came about because of a series of articles I wrote about the Slow Movement in the National Post [a Canadian newspaper]. When I was seriously contemplating the 'one-minute bedtime story' to read to my son in an effort to reduce the time it took to read to him I realised it was all too easy to get sucked into the cult of speed. I wanted to find out what others were doing about it."

The 21st century was destined to be the age of leisure, according to pundits ranging from John Maynard Keynes to Alvin Toffler, but somehow all that our many labour saving devices and information technology has done is to raise the stakes. Do more, and do it now - there's no excuse not to get things done in the shortest possible time. There's no need now to ever stop in our 24/7, 365- working-days-a-year society.

"We think that life is about doing things," says Christopher Hansard, a leading practitioner in Tibetan medicine and director of the Eden Medical Centre in London. "And we confuse 'doing' with 'being' and start to define ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are. In addition, all this 'doing' creates an excessive production of the stress hormone adrenaline, to which we then become physically addicted, so the high levels of adrenaline start to feel normal. The danger of that is that it affects us physically and emotionally. Physically, excessive amounts of stress hormones affect the bowel, leading to digestive problems while the brain is affected by what are, in effect, neurotoxins and cognitive function is reduced. Emotionally, we react with irritability and anxiety. And if we continue, then spiritual and physical burnout is inevitable."

Even the search for wellbeing can become frenetic, as we rush from work to the gym to therapist to the organic supermarket. We have to learn to use the 24-hour society to our advantage, not our detriment. As Honoré found, there is a "slow movement" and it's growing.

The home of the Slow Food ethos is Italy, launched in 1986 by the culinary writer Carlo Petrini, after a McDonald's opened near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Now, Slow Food has over 100,000 members in over 132 countries and promotes indigenous cuisine and supports small local producers

But food isn't the only thing to be celebrated and savoured slowly. How intimate can a couple get if their sex life is limited to five minutes, twice a month? This is not say that everyone should be having Tantric sex, but merely to state the obvious: that sometimes it's good to share time with someone you care for. An increasingly speedy life can become an increasingly isolated one.

"Another danger is that we inadvertently impose on our children the idea that only meaningful activity is valid," says Honoré. "So children are whisked from pillar to post with additional maths lessons, music appreciation, language classes - no wonder so many of them are chronically over-tired and showing signs of clinical stress. Proponents of 'slow schooling' advocate time to chill out and be bored, so children can have time to process events in their life, start to utilise their imaginations and find their own motivations. Some schools have even gone so far as to stop giving homework, believing school is for work and home is time to relax."

"When it comes to slowing down," he continues. "It is best to start small. Cook a meal from scratch. Take a walk with a friend. Read the newspaper without switching on the TV. Add massage to your lovemaking. Or simply take a few minutes to sit still in a quiet place."

Embrace the slow: how to decelerate

* Leave holes in the diary rather than striving to fill every moment with activity. Easing the pressure on your time will help you to slow down.

* Set aside a time of day to turn off all the technology that keeps us buzzing - phones, computers, pagers, email, television, radio. Use the break to sit quietly somewhere, alone with your thoughts. Or try meditating.

* Make time for at least one hobby that slows you down, such as reading, painting, gardening or yoga.

* Eat supper at the table instead of balancing it on your lap it in front of the TV.

* Always monitor your speed. If you're doing something more quickly than you need to simply out of habit, then take a deep breath and slow down.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Spanish edition

Spanish edition published January 2011

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Mindfulness meditation helps teenage boys

Two phrases you seldom see in the same sentence – ‘mindfulness meditation’ and ‘teenage boys’ – but new research from Cambridge University’s Institute of Wellbeing found how extremely beneficial it was when they introduced one to the other.

Researchers found that after a four-week course in mindfulness, the 155 boys (aged 14-15 years old) were found to have increased feelings of wellbeing, defined as the combination of feeling good (including positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection) and also an increased sense of functioning well.

“More and more we are realising the importance of supporting the overall mental health of children,” said Professor Felicia Huppert at the university’s Institute of Wellbeing, who conducted the study. “Our study demonstrates that this type of training improves wellbeing in adolescents and that the more they practice, the greater the benefits.

“Importantly, many of the students genuinely enjoyed the exercises and said they intended to continue them – a good sign that many children would be receptive to this type of intervention.

“Another significant aspect of this study is that adolescents who suffered from higher level of anxiety were the ones who benefited most from the training.”

For the research, students in six classes in two independent schools in the UK, were taught what is termed ‘mindful awareness’, or mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of consciously bringing attention and focus to the here and now, bringing awareness to our experience in the moment of experiencing it, but without passing judgement about it. This consisted of four 40-minute classes, one per week, which presented the principles and practice of mindfulness.

The classes covered awareness and acceptance of what they were experiencing, and taught the students how to practice bodily awareness by paying attention to their breathing, noticing all the sensations involved simply in walking, for example. They were also asked to practice in their own time, and were encouraged to listen to a series of exercises, designed to improve concentration and reduce stress, on a CD or mp3 file for eight minutes a day.

All students also completed a carefully compiled short series of online questionnaires before and after participating in the research. The questionnaires measured the effect of the training on changes in mindful awareness, resilience (the ability to modify responses to changing situations) and their sense of psychological wellbeing.

Researchers found that although it was a short programme, students who participated had increased levels of wellbeing as a consequence, and these were proportional to the amount of time they spent practicing their new skills.

“We believe that the effects of mindfulness training can enhance wellbeing in a number of ways,” said Professor Huppert. “If you practice being in the present, you can increase positive feelings by savouring pleasurable ongoing experiences. Additionally, calming the mind and observing experiences with curiosity and acceptance not only reduces stress but helps with attention control and emotion regulation – skills which are valuable both inside and outside the classroom.”

As the mother of two, teenage and older, I say - let's hear it for the boys!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The benefits of boredom...

It may sound a contradiction in terms, but boredom can actually have its benefits. Being bored can provide the opportunity for a creative hiatus, and even be the motivating factor behind your next great idea!
Boredom is said to fall into two categories, situational and repetitive. Situational boredom describes those occasions when hanging about with nothing to do is necessary: waiting for a bus, for example. Repetitive boredom occurs from doing the same routine task over and over again. This can include some activity you once enjoyed, but which now palls.
Sometimes we experience boredom because we have developed a need for instant gratification, part of our do-it-now/have-it-now mentality. Many activities, like surfing the Net, can play into this. How much time have you spent doing just that in a futile bid to avoid boredom? Maybe you would have been better off accepting you were bored, then used this stimulus to find something you really wanted to engage with.
But while it is often condemned - 'the Devil finds work for idle hands', as the old adage goes - being bored provides some useful 'time out', allowing us the opportunity to clear the mind and see what percolates up. To mull over, consider, reject and re-consider, ideas and possibilities.
For children especially, being kept relentlessly busy is counter-productive. Without the experience of boredom, how can you learn the self-motivation to alleviate it? It's an important and necessary stage of intellectual development.
Don't fight it, when boredom comes knocking, but succumb to it and see what it yields. Akin to daydreaming, which research has shown to be an active state of brain function, boredom can even be a great motivator. Instead of filling every minute of your day with activity that might prohibit the possibilities for boredom, take a risk on being bored, and see what happens.
Maybe we should see being bored as the transitional state it is - a brief period between completing one activity or process, and starting the next. A welcome pause. An opportunity for reflection. A moment to collect and re-focus our thoughts. No more nor less than that. And certainly not something that has to be fought against.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Make the humble houseplant your friend

FACT: People working indoors with houseplants in their line of vision do tasks a staggering 12% faster and are able to concentrate better than people who don’t have plants in the room.

Read the full report @ Plants4Life

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Breathe life back into concentration...

Although we do it automatically, breathing is something that we can also consciously control, making it one of the simplest methods of regaining physical and mental focus... and an aid to concentration.

Plus it's the single most useful tool we have for stress management, and immediately available to us all.

So how we breathe is very important.

But most of us breathe poorly: we tend to over-breathe, taking three or four breaths using only the upper part of our lung capacity, when one good breath using all would serve us better. This shallow breathing is very tiring, not only because we expend unnecessary energy to do so, but because we reduce our oxygen intake per breath. In its extreme form, over-breathing becomes hyperventilation, which can lead to panic attacks.

Breathing isn't just about taking oxygen in either, it's also about getting rid of carbon dioxide from our bodies. Shallow breathing alters the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the blood making it more acidic, and over time our muscles feel chronically tired and weakened from this acidic effect. Tired muscles also overcompensate by tensing up, increasing physical tension overall, which makes us feel emotionally tense and stressed.

Shallow breathing is also part of our 'fight or flight' response, causing the secretion of stress hormones. So in the same way that shallow breathing actually makes us more stressed than we might otherwise feel, so breathing more calmly will de-stress us, because the very act of consciously regulating our breathing sends a message from the body to the brain that everything is now OK, the emergency is over, and it can stop pumping out all that unnecessary adrenalin and cortisol!

Poor breathing patterns can set up their own vicious circle, for sure - and affect us both physically and emotionally. But the great news is that one simple change, how you breathe, can make one huge difference to how you feel.

Try the following exercise to get you started
  • lie comfortably on the floor, knees bent, chin tucked in - what Alexander Technique teachers call the 'constructive rest position' - or sit upright in a chair, legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor
  • consciously relax your neck and drop your shoulders, rest your arms by your sides with your palms turned upwards
  • breathe long and gently through your nose, into your belly until you see it gently rise, for a slow count of 5
  • pause, and hold that breath for a count of 5, then gently exhale through your mouth for another count of 5
  • while doing this, try to clear your mind of all other thoughts, or if this is difficult close your eyes and visualise a pebble dropping into a pool of water and gently sinking down
  • repeat this breathing cycle 10 times, then see how your regular breathing adjusts
  • you can also use this breathing technique at any time you feel tense or stressed, or as the basis of any meditation practice
Bear in mind that poor posture always cramps our breathing, while tension in the muscle with which we breathe, the diaphragm - the sheet of muscle that divides the chest from the abdominal cavity - will also create tension around the aorta, the main artery carrying blood through the centre of our bodies. Tension around the aorta can also elevate blood pressure.

So there are just too many good reasons why you should take a look at your breathing and change it for the better.

Many physical activities also help improve breathing techniques - singing, swimming, T'ai Chi, yoga, walking meditations, playing a musical (wind) instrument, for example - but improving your breathing will immediately improve your overall health and wellbeing, your mental focus... and your concentration!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Slow reading...

Unsurprisingly perhaps, our ability to concentrate long enough to read for much more than a minute (according to one professor's assessment of her students) is being eroded by our hyperactive online habits. So how can we regain the ability to concentrate on reading again? Slow reading is being advocated as the answer.

Thinking about this, I'm reminded of one 15 year old I coached who was aghast at having to read a whole book - Charles Dicken's Great Expectations - and was overwhelmed by the thought of this half term project set by his English teacher. This was someone who had never before read a book for pleasure, and I wasn't sure that reading Dickens was going to persuade him to do so either. We discussed how he might approach it and what goals he could set himself in order to achieve the task. He suggested a chapter a day, but the book had very short chapters - and 59 of them - so a chapter a day was only going to mean seven chapters over the week. Added to which, given the shortness of each, a chapter a day wouldn't allow him enough time to engage with the story, get into the language (which he wasn't used to) or start to enjoy the process of reading, which I felt was going to be key to his success.

Could you manage 30 minutes a day, reading? I asked. Without interruptions? Looking doubtful, he agreed he would try. I explained that he had to give himself a chance and however boring he found it initially, he had to try and persevere so that he could start to engage with it. 30 minutes is only the same length of time as an episode of EastEnders (a BBC TV programme he enjoyed) I said, and although he still wasn't entirely convinced, he agreed to give it a try.

When I saw him next I asked how it had gone. "I finished the whole book!" he told me, obviously really pleased with his achievement. I congratulated him and asked him if he had enjoyed the story. He pulled a bit of a face and said he thought he probably wouldn't choose to read another Dickens, but overall it had been OK and - here I was delighted - what else could he read? *

It wasn't just about the books, although my view is that reading opens up a whole new world you possibly couldn't access any other way, but it also allows people to practice their concentration skills in a meaningful and pleasurable way. For this young man, reading Great Expectations showed him that he was capable of concentrating when he chose, and he could apply this skill elsewhere to things that didn't immediately grab his attention - it was just a matter of practice.

Lesson learnt.

* I gave him a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, which he really enjoyed.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Take a walk... and boost your brain...

What goes on inside your brain when you exercise? That question has preoccupied a growing number of scientists in recent years, as well as many of us who exercise. In the late 1990s, Dr. Fred Gage and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute in San Diego elegantly proved that human and animal brains produce new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis) and that exercise increases neurogenesis. The brains of mice and rats that were allowed to run on wheels pulsed with vigorous, newly born neurons, and those animals then breezed through mazes and other tests of rodent I.Q., showing that neurogenesis improves thinking.

Friday, 9 July 2010

New rules for office gossip…

Gossip can be a lot of fun and is often a feature of office politics - so it’s tempting to indulge - as long as it doesn’t backfire, because it can also make or break reputations. Plus it can seriously undermine your concentration at work!

Recent news of US company Bridgewater Associates' boss Ray Dalio issuing a ban on office gossip has given rise to speculation about the nature of office gossip, and whether a ban is either useful or enforceable.

If you’re the boss, and you want to keep gossip at a minimum, make sure your workforce is kept informed of events and changes. Insecurity at work ups the gossip quota – much of which can be unhelpful to office stability – as people speculate and speculation somehow becomes fact, however inaccurate, like a game of Chinese whispers.

What we also know is that office gossip – whether face-to-face at the water cooler, whispered at a desk, or via email, SMS and MSN – is distracting and time-wasting and can be extremely detrimental to both personal and workplace productivity.

Without being a goody-two-shoes, if you want to get ahead at work the cardinal rules for office gossip are:

1. Set boundaries – don’t share personal confidences you might later regret if they are used against you

2. Be discreet – getting a reputation as the office gossip will imply that you are not to be trusted

3. Keep any gossip upbeat – you don’t want to be seen as the office moaner

4. Never commit to paper, email or text something that could fall into the wrong hands and work against you

5. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you by slagging off your boss or anyone who might be responsible for any future promotion or reference

And if you’re going to be gossiped about, make sure it’s positive gossip that will enhance your reputation as a trusted, productive co-worker everyone wants to be associated with!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Concentrating on daydreaming...

"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness. But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream - much more active than when we focus on routine tasks," says Professor Kalina Christoff, psychologist at the University of British Columbia.


Saturday, 3 July 2010

Concentrating at work… eight top tips to help you.

Many of us work in environments that aren’t particularly conducive to concentration – even those of us fortunate enough to work from home! – with lots of interruptions and activity that make distraction all too possible.

We can be distracted by external stimulation, like noise in particular, or internally by the “chattering monkeys” of our mind - so what can we do to help improve our concentration levels in the workplace?

8 Top Tips

  • eat breakfast: your brain can’t run on empty and if you don’t eat your stress hormones will kick in to sustain you and these will make you feel jittery and distracted, as will that cup of coffee you drink to help compensate for an empty stomach!

  • utilise your circadian rhythms: high alertness occurs around 2 to 3 hours after you wake, so start your day with your most important task - you should then be able to concentrate for 90 minutes before you need a break (although this may take practise if you are unused to it!)

  • make a list: prioritise your tasks, and use different times - like immediately after lunch -for tasks that require less concentration

  • avoid what external stimuli you can: put your phone on silent, turn off your email alert, close down internet pages you’re not using, and sit with your back to as much activity as you can if you work in an open plan office

  • avoid multi-tasking: focus on one thing at a time because, as cognitive scientist David Meyer says, “Multi-tasking is always going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

  • take a break: research by psychologist Marc Berman in 2009 showed that 20 minutes spent in a rural environment (the local park will do) will help what has been identified by Professor Stephen Kaplan as “attention restoration” - even looking at a picture of a beautiful rural scene has been shown to help - and get you back on track

  • stay hydrated: regular drinks of water really help the brain stay alert and this makes concentration easier

  • use music: if your workplace allows this, or if you can wear headphones, music while you work can help block out other noise and promote the sort of brain activity that is conducive to concentration - if it’s the right music. Baroque music has been found to be beneficial, so bring on the Bach!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Can music help you concentrate?

It's 70 years to the day that BBC radio introduced a music programme called Music While You Work in a bid to help lift morale and raise productivity among factory workers during WW2. When the first programme was broadcast on Sunday June 23rd 1940, at the British government's suggestion, the choice of music had been studiously researched - plenty of familiar tunes, but nothing too fast and nothing too slow - it was soon popular with domestic listeners, too.

Scroll forward, and research has continued to show that music can aid concentration and productivity, something that might be argued by many students today - currently in the thick of their end of year exams - but are they right?

Research from Stanford University's School of Medicine has shown that music definitely engages areas of the brain involved with paying attention. While other research from Rutgers University in 2006, from a study with maths students, actually identified which type of music was most beneficial: Baroque.

"Music stabilizes mental, physical and emotional rhythms to attain a state of deep concentration and focus in which large amounts of content information can be processed and learned," says Chris Boyd, a proponent of music in learning and health, who runs Life Sounds ( "Baroque music, such as that composed by Bach, Handel or Telemann, that is 50 to 80 beats per minute creates an atmosphere of focus that leads students into deep concentration in the alpha brain wave state. Learning vocabulary, memorizing facts or reading to this music is highly effective. On the other hand, energizing Mozart music assists in holding attention during sleepy times of day and helps students stay alert while reading or working on projects."

I couldn't tell you if Rio Ferdinand is listening to Bach or Mozart, but he might like to give it a go.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

What's posture got to do with it?

You may not think there is an obvious connection between your posture and concentration, but if you are someone who spends long hours sitting at a desk or working on a keyboard (IT or musical), your posture can make a big difference to how long your concentration levels hold.

It's actually very simple.

Bad posture causes poor breathing patterns, restricted circulation, muscular strain and repetitive strain injuries, which can not only sap energy (because negative patterns of muscular use use up more energy than positive ones) but can also cause constant, low-grade physical pain.

But there's lots you can do if you think your posture might be at fault.

Take a look at how you sit - slumped middle, crossed legs, rounded shoulders, craning neck - all of which will create problems in the long term. And if your muscle tone is flabby, you will be relying on tendons and ligaments instead, running the risk of repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Make sure your desk, chair and screen - if you are working at a computer - are at the right height for you. Sit on an exercise ball rather than a chair to help engage your core abdominal muscles while you sit, and prevent you from slouching. Keep feet flat on the floor, hips and knees at right angles.

Exercise to keep those core muscles strong will also help. Pilates is excellent for this, but also other exercise like T'ai Chi and yoga will improve posture. Check in with the posture experts, Alexander Technique teachers, to help correct body mis-alignment and poor posture. If you work with any sort of personal trainer, they should also be eagled-eye about your posture to avoid injury when you exercise.

Freeing up your posture, alleviating the tension in the many muscle groups from shoulders to calves, will also improve blood circulation - which carries oxygen to the brain - keeping those neurons happily energised and your ability to concentrate enhanced.

Do this now and your body and brain will thank you when you're 80!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Running on empty

He's worth £250 million. He employs 600 people. P Diddy may be ghetto fabulous and an icon of success, but he can't sleep. "If I got more sleep, I'd be a better person, a healthier person, I'd be able to see a bit clearer. It's a problem - and I'm looking for help," he said in a recent interview in the London Times.

"I ain't stressed, it's the reverse. It's because I'm so excited."

Excitement. Stress. Grief. Anxiety. Chronic insomnia. They all have one thing in common: they put the body into 'fight or flight' mode - a state of preparation for coping with an emergency. The body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, hormones designed to get you through an acute crisis not a chronically unbalanced lifestyle. These hormones are meant to heighten physical and mental performance and so they prevent sleep, increase the heart rate, improve muscle power and raise blood pressure - everything you need to fight off an attack from a sabre-toothed tiger, but less than useful every day in the office.

When these hormones are persistently activated they make you feel jittery, tense, nauseous, and in turn - as in P Diddy's case - unable to sleep.

In the longterm, this scenario can lead to adrenal exhaustion - when the adrenal glands, stimulated beyond capability, pack up - and the inevitable physical and mental burnout. This in turn can lead to problems like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), ME (mylagic encephalitis) and other autoimmune disorders like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of adrenal exhaustion include:
- insomnia
- difficulties with concentration and memory
- low-stress intolerance, irritability
- lethargy and fatigue
- light-headedness, especially on standing up
- allergies
- PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome)
- more frequent coughs and colds

But it's not easy to change tack because we can become almost addicted to the sort of high that running on empty can provide. Slowing down feels odd at first. Flat. Not quite right. We can become stress junkies.

P Diddy is wise to be alarmed by his chronic insomnia, but this is only a symptom of a bigger problem. His sleep problem is directly connected to his lifestyle demands, and until he addresses those, sleep won't come easy.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Disaster at the 42nd minute, redemption at the 65th

"He's just dropped his concentration for a split second..." said the match commentator. When it comes to concentration, it's what you do next that will really count.

Was it lack of concentration or nerves for the goalie?

Rob Green, England's goalkeeper, couldn't have felt worse at this moment. His slip resulted in an equalising goal for the US, after Gerrard's great first goal within the first four minutes of the match, bringing the score to 1:1.

But would this slip-up distract Green for the rest of the match?

Apparently not. He managed to regain his composure and his concentration and, at the 65th minute, was redeemed by making a good save.

In the end, he really showed the art of concentration.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Will the noise of the vuvuzela horn affect the footballers’ concentration?

An unusual aspect of the World Cup is the debate surrounding the vuvuzela horn, used by supporters to show their appreciation. It makes a sound like a large bluebottle fly trapped in a jam jar, multiplied many times.

Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso and the Netherlands coach Bert van Marjijk obviously thought it might affect players’ concentration, and ability to communicate with each other, and called for a ban. But this was rejected by FIFA president Sepp Blatter who said, “We should not try to Europeanise the World Cup.”

How far are players, concentrating on their game, affected by external noise anyway? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the sort of ability to concentrate that will take a player to the top of his or her game, will over-ride background noise. They literally don't hear the noise while they're in 'the zone'.

Let’s hope so.

There is also evidence to show that those for whom concentration is difficult, and this includes research done with children with attention deficity hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can benefit from background music, or white noise– a sound containing a blend of all the audible frequencies distributed equally over the range of the frequency band – to counteract or mask other distractions and noises.

It may be that the vuvuzela horn’s noise falls into this white noise category – but it’s very loud!

And irrespective of how loud it is to the players, listening to the TV commentators on the World Cup’s opening match was difficult given the level of background noise from the horn.

No doubt I will get used to it, and I imagine the players will, too – but for the first time, and for this reason alone, I’m quite glad I’m not there in person!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Procrastination is the thief of time

In the 21st Century we've created the perfect environment for procrastination with all the many distractions of our 24/7 lives, and psychologists have characterised this as behaviour that is counterproductive, needless or delaying.

It actually takes energy to procrastinate - dissipating energy that could be better used concentrating on getting the job done.

So why do we do it?

There are a number of reasons: immaturity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (a characteristic of adolescence), it can also be linked to negative coping strategies that actually undermine our efforts, or lack of self-esteem about tackling a particular task, and even fear of failure. But psychologist and author of It's About Time, Dr Linda Sapadin has identified six procrastination styles, which can be helpful to consider if you feel that your procrastination habit is getting out of hand...

1. Perfectionists - who procrastinate because they want everything to be perfect, including that very first sentence, so will avoid doing anything unless it complies with their - usually unrealistic - aims.

2. Crisis Junkies - who like to leave everything to the last minute because it creates drama in their lives, gets them lots of attention, and actually creates a 'living on the edge' scenario they use to motivate themselves.

3. Dreamers - who tend to procrastinate because they find it all too complicated, and hate dealing with bothersome details, so would rather think about something else.

4. Defiers - who resent and resist doing what they need to do because they are defying some sort of internal, or external, authority figure.

5. Worriers - masters of the 'what if?' scenario, they can't get going because they constantly anticipate the worst and are afraid of change, and this nagging preoccupation stops them from starting.

6. Over-doers - who take on too much, don't know how to organise and prioritise what needs doing, so don't know where to start - then go off and find something else on their long list to do rather than tackle it.

What style of procrastination do you employ to avoid doing something? And why? Once you've identified it, you can work towards counteracting it - or, alternatively, just ignoring your efforts to procrastinate, and employ that same energy to getting it done!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

How does your mood affect your concentration?

Which came first: how you feel or the mood you're in? Does how you feel affect your mood or does your mood affect how you feel? Either way, there's no doubt that your mood can affect you, and your ability to concentrate.

"Moods are an internal measure of how we are," says Dr Liz Miller, author of Mood Mapping. "We do not express our moods directly. Instead we express them indirectly in the way we think, communicate, behave and see the world. To concentrate, you need to feel good as well as having enough energy. Although concentration may look relaxed on the outside, it is work. And if you are concentrating intensely, it is hard work! You need to have energy to concentrate, and it is easier if you are feeling positive.'

But can you consciously change your mood? Yes, says Miller, who developed the Mood Mapping technique.

"Moods can be managed, both in the immediate moment and in the longer term. And to begin, you need to understand five key inputs to mood, which are: your surroundings, your physical body, your relationships, you knowledge and your nature (personality type)."

Mood mapping is a technique that helps you first plot your mood and then work on it to get it right - if one of the five areas is out of balance, you're physically overtired or unwell, for example, you can see how this impacts on you, and improve it. It's a practical device that lets you see what it is that is influencing your mood, enables you to identify it, and then take those necessary steps that will help you manage your mood, and stop it ruling your life.

Makes sense to me!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Workplace stress is an insidious and increasing problem...

Recently tagged by UK mental health charity MIND as Britain's £26bn epidemic, workplace stress is an insidious and increasing problem... and the cost of putting on a happy face is not only costing individuals dear, but has a knock-on effect on workplace productivity.

Identify its early warning symptoms and try to avoid its worst effects before it affects your health.

Causes of work-related stress include:
* poor working conditions
* long working hours
* lack of job security
* too much responsibility
* difficult relationships with colleagues
Symptoms of work-related stress include:
* finding concentration hard
* irritability and mood swings
* feeling unmotivated
* feeling like you can't cope
Physical symptoms can include:
* excessive tiredness and sleep problems
* a raised heart rate
* digestive problems
* muscular tension - backaches and neckaches
* chronic headaches
Tips to help avoid work-place stress:
* take your lunch break every day
* tackle one task at a time
* be realistic about what you can accomplish
* raise unrealistic demands with your line manager/boss

Find out more from MIND

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Practice makes perfect..

Well, maybe not perfect, but any of us can reach a level of excellence and expertise through practice. It's opportunity not genetic inclination that creates excellence, that old 10,000 hours again...

Sure, a great footballer has exceptional perceptual awareness and complex spatial skills, but there's a very relevant argument that says this comes primarily from practice, not from genes.

Think about it. Learning to speak is a complicated process, but we all master it. In fact, the process of learning to speak actually creates the neural pathways in the brain that makes us expert at it. The same with learning to read. Or learning to walk. Jump. Hop. Extend this to any complex physical or mental task and it comes back to the same thing... repetition of doing something over and over again, call it practice is you like, makes it possible to do it better.

Takes this a stage further and practice, practice, practice - purposeful practice as the experts term it - and you actually change the anatomy of the brain. For example, taxi drivers learning "the knowledge" so that they can navigate the 659 square miles of the 33 boroughs of London, show a larger than averaged size hippocampus - the area of the brain which houses memory.

And this facility for change is life long. Neurogenesis - the creation of new brain cells and neural pathways, and neuroplasticity - the flexibility of the brain, is life long. We may be less inclined or motivated in some activities than others, but success or failure hinges more on our beliefs than our ability, it seems. The motivation to clock up the hours of practice is born in our brain, not our genes.

Read more about this, and see how you can apply it to the art of concentration, in Matthew Syed's book Bounce: How Champions are Made

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

How can full spectrum light help you concentrate better?

Remember how revitalised time spent in sunlight makes you feel? It lifts the mood and improves energy levels, helping you to feel more focused and motivated - but why?

Light directly influences our emotions because it reaches the brain through the eyes, and is transmitted to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is connected to almost every other part of the brain, and involved with the regulation of hormones involved in motivation and reward. As a consequence, light has an affect on our basic drives and biological functions.

Bright light also inhibits the secretion of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Low light and darkness stimulates the pineal gland to secrete melatonin, so necessary for a good night's sleep, but counter-productive during the day. Those who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) where seasonally low levels of light produces a form of depression, quite severe in some people, can find light therapy particularly effective.

The rest of us benefit greatly from exposure to good light levels, too. Twenty minutes walk a day in the sunshine which, even on an overcast day is between 5 and 20 times stronger than normal indoor lighting, is often advocated for improvement of mood and motivation, but what can you do if daily opportunities for adequate exposure to sunshine or bright daylight are limited?

Full spectrum lighting is the closest thing to natural sunlight, and used to treat those with SAD. But its benefits can also be utilised by the rest of us. Working with a full spectrum desk light can improve concentration, especially when long hours of desk work are necessary.

Many office workers have to put up with fluorescent lighting, which also flickers imperceptibly, making it very tiring to the eyes and, as a consequence, to the brain. Installing full spectrum lighting into work environments avoids this, and can improve productivity because of increased levels of wellbeing, motivation, concentration and a happier mood.

Which is why I work with a full spectrum desk light.

Living in the northern hemisphere, over the winter months and long dark days it's particularly beneficial, but provides a good source of light whenever I need it - although I do have to be sure not to use it for a couple of hours prior to bedtime. I need that melatonin as much as anybody, but at night, not when I'm trying to concentrate!

For more information on full spectrum lighting

Monday, 10 May 2010

What is active listening, and can it help you concentrate better?

We hear with our ears but we listen with our brains. How many times have you been 'listening' to someone - but not heard a word they said? You weren't concentrating!

Hearing is passive, while listening is an active process.

Top tips for improving listening skills include:

- Focus with your eyes on the person speaking
- Think about what they are saying
- If your attention wanders, consciously bring it back to what is being said
- Make mental notes of key points
- Make written notes - but don't attempt to write everything down
- Practise repeating back to yourself the gist of what has been said
- Make affirmative nods of the head, to acknowledge that you're listening

By concentrating solely on the speaker while you listen, whether they are there in person or even on the phone, will help encourage your active listening. This in turn will help you concentrate on what is being said, and make it easier to retain.

The more you do it, the easier active listening will become!

Friday, 7 May 2010

Right brain or left brain?

Are you right brain or left brain dominant?
Do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise?

If you see her rotating clockwise, you are right brain dominant
- and vice versa.

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

Most of us tend to be either left or right brain dominant: that is, we naturally tend to favour the use of one side of the brain to the other.

Decide whether you are left or right brain dominant by seeing which way the dancer rotates - clockwise, or anti-clockwise.

Now really concentrate your mind and see if you change your automatic preference for left or right brain dominance, and make the dancer rotate in the opposite direction!

If you want to know more about whether you are right or left brain dominant, try the test available at

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

"It is the time you have spent with your rose that makes your rose so important."

So said Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in his timeless book The Little Prince, and it is a reminder that we benefit not just from the outcome of our efforts but also from the process of them. 

It is an act of faith to tend a flower. The rewards are not immediate. We have to persevere and be patient. We have to continue to spend time on doing something that isn't immediately rewarding. Only when a flower blooms do we see the full extent of our investment.

It is sometimes an act of faith to concentrate on something that requires commitment and input before immediately yielding a result... and this applies to many things we do from learning a foreign language to a new physical activity.

What is true, however, is that by concentrating on what we do, we can make it relevant and important to us. And this supports the process.

Then the process becomes as rewarding as the goal, and the goal is the successful outcome of the process.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Could depression be affecting your concentration?

Poor concentration can sometimes be a symptom of depression. A low level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, often found in those suffering bouts of depression, affects neuro-connectivity and contributes to poor concentration.

Understandably, too, if you are preoccupied by negative or anxious thoughts, suffer poor sleep, lose your appetite and experience feelings of hopelessness, all of which are symptoms of depression, your concentration levels are bound to be affected.

Winston Churchill referred to his depression as his “black dog” and 1 in 4 of us will experience it, too.

Sometimes depression is reactive – you have good reason to feel low if a close relative has died, you have been physically unwell, or have lost your job. It would be unusual not to feel temporarily depressed following events like these. However, it is the creeping, insidious depressions that come about, often for no immediate or obvious reason, that can be tricky – but not impossible – to handle.

Be aware of the early symptoms, and that these can be aggravated by chronic sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, overwork and lack of exercise. Low-grade physical exhaustion can precede mental depression. It has become identified as a curse of the have-it-all, do-it-all generation.

Take note and take action, because mild to moderate depression responds well to various self-help measures.

- Up your daily exercise, even just 20 minutes brisk walking can help, because it helps elevates levels of feel-good brain chemicals

- Make sure you get a daily dose of daylight – 20 minutes exercise in the daylight can make a big difference

- Breathing – sounds obvious, but consciously breathing deeply and calmly reduces feelings of anxiety

- Eat regular, nutritious meals – a see-sawing blood sugar level aggravates feelings of anxiety

- Keep regular hours and don’t get so chronically overtired that all your compensatory “awake” hormones kick in to keep you going, and then keep you awake when you need to sleep

- Supplement with omega3 essential fatty acid EPA: a gram a day of pharmaceutical grade EPA has been shown to be as effective as 20mg a day of Prozac

- Take time out from your work routine to relax and clear your brain: if you find this difficult, learn to meditate

But if none of this works for you, see your doctor. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) shows good results, and modern drugs have their place, too. Above all, seek help if you need it.

See SANE's new campaign