Paying Attention To Attention: How To Train Yourself To Stop Your Wandering Mind

by Shelby

There is so much distraction in the modern day world. Cell phones with apps, social media, televisions, computers, all kinds of stuff. It can be kind of difficult to keep a clear, focused head to get all of your ducks in a row.


There can be a lot of things get in the way of your productivity. Whether it be electronic distractions around you or just wandering thoughts, we can’t help but get a little sidetracked. Researchers and doctors have studied this subject on lots of different occasions. A more recent study, performed at Princeton University suggests that if there is a will, there’s a way!

According to the researchers, if you can make yourself pay attention to your attention, you can master productivity. Wandering thoughts are inevitable, of course, but if you can stop yourself and remind yourself of your original task it enables you to focus more. The study was performed on students lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI). While lying inside the machine, the students would flip through photos of human faces. The pictures of the faces were superimposed over scenery, and the students were asked to press a button each time they saw a male or a female.

“We hypothesized that lapses in these tasks — and in life — occur because humans do not adequately monitor how well they are attending from moment to moment,” the authors write. “Lapses emerge gradually and may be detected too late, after the chain of events that produces behavioral errors has been initiated. Accordingly, one way to train sustained attention might be to provide a more sensitive feedback signal, such that participants can learn to sense upcoming lapses earlier and prevent them from manifesting in behavior.”

The researchers would monitor the student’s brain activity, and when they noticed unusual brain activity such as wandering thoughts, the next photo would get increasingly more difficult; and the opposite. If the students remained focused on the task it would get increasingly easier.

“If you’re supposed to be focusing on the face and get distracted, we detect that in your brain before it causes an error on the task,” Turk-Browne said in the press release. “We alert the participant that they’re in the wrong state by making the task harder so they really have to buckle down. If we see they’re starting to focus on the right kind of things again, we make the task easier. By giving them access to their own brain states, we’re giving them the information they wouldn’t otherwise have until they made a mistake.”

“The basic science is really why we did the study, and we learned a lot about behavior and the brain,” Turk-Browne said in the press release. “I think some of the most interesting applications may actually be in the everyday mundane experiences we all have of not being able to stay focused on what we’re trying to do.”

Essentially, the outcome of the study showed that if you can catch yourself getting distracted, you can increase your focus on your original task. Just pay attention to your attention! However, don’t try to cut out all of your wandering thoughts – you won’t succeed. Embrace dazing out at the sky, it’s good for your brain.

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