Monday, 28 February 2011

10 Top Tips for Concentration

A quick reminder of what you can do to improve your concentration ... achieve more ... and reduce stress ...

1. Turn off all the external distractions you can – music, mobile phone, email alerts – and close the door to your work room, giving off a signal that interruptions are currently unwelcome.

2. Don’t multi-task. Except for very mundane tasks, when you try to do too much at once your concentration and hence your brain’s ability to transfer information from working memory to stored memory, which you can retrieve later, is impaired. Learning French verbs while chatting on MSN might appear to get the job done, but you’ll remember little tomorrow.

3. Eat breakfast – the brain needs fuel, especially after a night’s sleep. For best results choose porridge for its slow-release energy, or combine protein with carbohydrate to stabilise blood sugar levels.

4. Drink more water. Your brain is 80% water and relies on good hydration for its neurological transmissions.

5. Learning new activities that link and challenge your mental ability is particularly effective in generating new brain cells – what the scientists call neurogenesis – and helping concentration. And these new cells will also help energise old brain cells, by firing them up and making new connections, so it’s doubly effective.

6. Get enough sleep. When we are tired we rely on stress hormones to keep us going – great in the short term, but detrimental to concentration in the long term.

7. Listen more actively – we hear with our ears, but listen with our brains –listening more purposefully helps concentration.

8. Omega-3 EPA is good for brain function, so supplement if necessary because it’s hard to get enough from modern diets even if you eat oily fish regularly.

9. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate on something – whether it’s the book you’re reading or the flat-pack you’re trying to assemble – allow yourself enough time to engage with what you’re doing in order to aid your concentration.

10. Physical exercise is good for the brain for two reasons – one, it helps us relax and a relaxed brain concentrates better and two, physical exercise itself produces a hormone that actively supports brain cell activity.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Brain waves

Talking to a friend today, I was reminded of how useful it is to recognise and tap into different "brain waves". If we do this, learning to identify and utilise the different capacity of the brain's waves, we could not only achieve more, but achieve more easily.

There are four main types of brain waves: Alpha, Beta, Delta and Theta, and a fifth - Gamma - that also deserves a mention. Brain waves work a bit like the gears on a car engine, shifting brain activity up and down according to what we are trying to do. Delta (seen only in deep sleep) is a bit like first gear, Theta (light, dreaming sleep and drowsiness) the second, Alpha third, and Beta fourth - with Gamma for a high performance fifth gear.

As with driving, skillful use of gear change can get the best performance out of a car. When we are driving a complex route, we operate mainly in Beta, dipping in and out of the more relaxed state of Alpha - which is good for creative time-out and a bit of restorative daydreaming. Just as there is no benefit to driving in only one gear, we need to create balance and opportunity to match the right level of brain wave for what we are trying to do.

Gamma brain waves are those that resonate at a higher frequency than Beta - typically at 40 Hz and above - and these have become more easily identified since the introduction of digital electroencephalography (EEG) as analog EEG was restricted to around 30 HZ. So although Gamma waves have always existed, they were previously not recognised on monitoring equipment. They are associated with a state of hyper-alertness, perception and integration of sensory input, usually seen in those who train for peak performance in a physical or intellectual capacity, as they are evidence of extreme levels of concentration and focus. But for the rest of us, a good example is when time seems to "slow down" during a car or other accident, for example. This is the brain entering a phase of Gamma waves where our survival may be dependent on the fastest of information processing and reaction times.

For many of us, life is just one long round of Beta wave activity, which is tiring and, in the end, counter-productive as it's impossible to deliver continuously well when utilising only one wakeful state (if you drove a car continuously in fourth gear, you'd wreck the engine). Certainly, consciously working towards more balance between Beta and Alpha waves means a more creative way of concentrating, problem solving and working. Balancing between the two, and dipping into Gamma wave activity occasionally, could serve us even better. Along with lots of Theta and Delta waves at night!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Daydream believer

Einstein did it. Mozart did it. But will you make the time to daydream and see what it might yield?

Writing a book on the art of concentration became extremely focused on the pursuit of those constructive activities that produced tangible results. Where the aim was to replace distraction with focus, procrastination with achievable outcomes. But when I looked at what might also free up the brain to improve they way we live and work and concentrate, another theme crept up on me: that of checking out to check in. Freeing up the mind to make its own unique connections. To allow the opportunity for the unfettered creativity that it is capable of. That "Eureka" moment.

Sure, there was still a need to remove those distractions that the habit of multi-tasking can produce, but this could create the space not only to concentrate on executing some task or hit some deadline, but also to merely stand and stare. To be in the moment. To allow the mind to wander and wonder. And see what might percolate through... what genius solutions might be lurking behind some of the restrictions of our results-driven way of being.

I began to see that by concentrating better in order to get things done, there might be more time to daydream! And that this might be constructive and beneficial.

Why do our minds drift off anyway? Modern brain-scanning techniques show that when this happens, the temporal lobes of the brain are actually busy processing long-term memories, like some automatic data-storage facility.

Daydreaming allows the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in problem-solving, to do its work. "Mind wandering is actually a very involved task," says psychologist Jonathan Schooler, who is researching this at UC Santa Barbara. "You leave the here and now and focus on more remote concerns that nevertheless might be more important. We've been focusing on the downside of this [daydreaming] but we need to think about the upside."

It also allows us to envisage the next step in an idea or plan. To play it out, visualise it and see what it might look like. Making it more real and more possible. Every big idea starts with a "What if..." thought, but you need the head space to consider and develop it. To allow the creativity the subconscious mind is capable of.

Archimedes was taking a bath when he finally solved the seemingly intractable problem of measuring the volume of objects with precision. Einstein's theory of relativity began with a daydream on a sunbeam, which led to the realisation that the earth was curved...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Learn to breathe easier with Resperate

When we are stressed, anxious, frightened or angry, our breathing pattern speeds up and becomes quite shallow, using only the upper part of our lungs. In the short term, it's a useful part of our 'fight or flight' response, helping us deal with whatever it is that's disturbing us. In the longer term, it can become an habitual but unhelpful way of breathing, because instead of our mind telling our body that we need to cope with an emergency, the way we are breathing actually conveys to the mind that we have a continuous reason to feel anxious, panicked, etc.

Understanding this can be a useful first step toward using the way we breathe to consciously help regulate how we feel - both emotionally and physically. But it's not always easy to learn to do this, which is where Resperate can help.

Designed primarily to help those with high blood pressure to lower it, the Resperate device works by providing feedback on how you are breathing. It measures your breath rate while playing classical music, then slows it down to encourage a slower pace. It acts as a breathing coach, and used several times a day can help restore a calmer way of breathing. You can actually see how well you are doing, even before you begin to feel it.

With regard to the lowering of blood pressure, nine peer-reviewed medical publications listed on the Resperate site, along with more anecdotal reviews from doctors and users, provide testament to its effectiveness.

I was told about Resperate by a uniquely qualified Ericksonian psychotherapist, Annette Poizner (, who was telling me how I could improve my lung energy - and why it was important!

For me, if you are (as one professional once put it) a 'managed type A personality' it can be very useful to have some physical evidence that your mindfulness, meditation or other practice, is effective. Like anything else, it demands some commitment, but it's really no hardship to sit quietly and take some time out - whether the result you want is to lower your blood pressure or calm your thoughts.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Foods for concentration

I'm often asked what foods help improve concentration and what 'superfoods' should we be eating and what supplements should we be taking...

So here goes.

Basically your brain needs glucose as fuel to function, which the body sources from carbohydrate, and doesn't much care what sort except that it be regular and continuous.

However, if you rely on simple carbohydrates like a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps, to the exclusion of much else, then you get a carbohydrate surge which induces an insulin surge, which can then cause the sort of mood swings that make concentration difficult. Or you get a headache. Or an energy slump. All of which is much more noticeable in children. Complex carbohydrates - oatmeal, wholegrains, bananas, pulses and beans, nuts, brown rice - are a better option, as they also contains lots of other beneficial nutrients.

So to keep the brain concentrating, complex carbohydrates and adequate hydration (because the brain is 90% water and is happiest well-watered) is a good place to start.

After complex carbohydrates and water, here are my other recommendations.

Eggs, for example, which contain the micronutrient choline (an essential precursor for acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter in the brain) in the yolks, and also found in soybeans, lentils, oats, sesame seeds and other sources. One of the benefits of combining protein like an egg, with complex carbohydrate like wholegrain bread, is that this also helps manage insulin surges.

You've heard it before, but antioxidants help mop up free radicals, the damaging by-product of cellular activity in our bodies. Fresh fruit and vegetables - lots of them, the more brightly coloured the higher they are in antioxidants. So this is why blueberries, pomegranates, sweet potato, beetroot, spinach, etc. sometimes get dubbed 'superfoods' because they are high in antioxidants. Aim for a rainbow diet. And green tea, also high in antioxidants - my daily favourite is Mighty Leaf's green tea with jasmine.

And because I also believe in a little of what you fancy doing you good... I'm pleased to report that dark chocolate is high in antioxidants. My treat is Green & Blacks organic dark chocolate with ginger... who knew something so delicious could also be good for you.

Essential fatty acids
From oily fish, with the recommendation that you eat at least two portions a week. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are just that, essential and you can't manufacture them yourself. What you're aiming for is omega-3 EPA and omega-3 DHA. Forget omega-6, from vegetable sources, the majority of Western diets are supersaturated with omega-6 already, and it competes with omega-3 for absorption.

This is the most widely consumed pharmacologically active substance in the world - trimethylxanthine, to give it its chemical name - but in small doses can give you a short-term kick helping your brain to focus. However, it will also stimulate your central nervous system and in excess will affect your sleep patterns, give you a racing heart and possibly palpitations, and it's addictive. Make caffeine your friend and not your enemy. Drink freshly brewed coffee and limit it to a couple of cups a day at the most, and avoid drinks like Red Bull like the plague.

I'm not big on supplements, which should always be used to supplement a good diet rather than compensate for a poor one. Eating a balanced and varied diet, with lots of the above, should help ensure all the nutrients and micronutrients you ordinarily need, and forestall the necessity for masses of supplements. However, there are times when supplementation might be a useful option. Omega-3 EFAs are one nutrient that can be hard to get enough of even from a good diet, but choose your omega-3 supplements with care because there are lots out there that actually deliver very little active ingredient. Vitamin B can sometimes be a little deficient, especially as we age and our ability to absorb it from our diet deteriorates. Dietary iron is sometimes deficient in women of reproductive age, giving rise to sub-clinical iron deficiency anaemia which can cause symptoms of fatigue, muddled thinking and forgetfulness - and short-term supplementation to improve haemoglobin levels can be helpful.

And your most important meal of the day? Breakfast. You've heard that before, too - but there's no doubt about it, you'll concentrate better if you eat breakfast.