01.04.2007

The power of focus

Many of us are familiar with the idea of the Law of Attraction. But to ask a famous question, 'Why is it so?' Dr Peter Dingle suggests it's all about where we choose to put our focus and how we go about doing it.

Many of us are familiar with the idea of theLaw of Attraction. But to ask a famous question, 'Whyis it so?' Dr Peter Dingle suggests it's all about wherewe choose to put our focus and how we go about doingit.

Many people focus on the minutiae of life and as a resultget the minutiae of life. Learn to focus on the importantthings in your life based on your values and then yourbig picture and everything else, including happiness,will come.

The busyness in our lives has created a sense of distractionand difficulty maintaining focus and attention. Societynow demands that we have multiple tasks often with competingand conflicting interests and we take pride in our abilityto multi-task and wear it as our badge of courage. Asa result of these demands, our brains attempt to adaptby rapidly shifting attention from one activity to another,creating an almost pathologically short attention span.
When we do work we create energy, like a fire. A logburning on the ground sends heat and energy off in alldirections depending upon the various winds and eddies.It is a bit like most people's lives, going off in manydirections at once and not warming anyone. When youput it in an efficient structure, like a fireplace,it not only gets the smoke out of your eyes, but itfocuses the heat and warms you.

The brain of modern Homo sapiens reached its capacityaround 200,000 years ago and has changed very littlesince, and certainly not in the past 20 years. Researchshows that speed and accuracy are often at cross purposesin the human brain. Beyond a certain speed of visualor auditory information input, memory becomes increasinglypoorer compared to straightforward presentations ofthe same information. Our brain is being forced to manageincreasing amounts of information in shorter and shortertime intervals. To cope with this, the brain must restructureitself causing changes in its functioning. As a result,we often cannot exert control over our brain states,as experienced by people trying to quiet their mindsduring sleep or meditation. In the age of the four secondmedia bite, instant gratification and busyness helpcreate the adult version of social ADHD.

Multi-tasking experiments have shown that not onlydo people perform worse on all the projects on whichthey multi-task, but also it also wastes valuable mentaltime and energy (Restak 2002). Despite all the myths,humans (including the female of the species) can onlyfocus on one thing at a time. Doing two or more taskssplits that focus along with decreasing efficiency andeffectiveness. With each shift in attention, our frontallobes shift goals and activate new rules of operation.The amount of time lost during the brain's switchingbetween tasks is dependent upon the complexity and numberof tasks. With more complex tasks comes slower switchingtime. Hence the increase in road accidents through usingmobile phones while driving. Research on mobile phoneshas found that even hands-free phones significantlyreduce the reaction time in simulation exercises.

As an example of the complexity of multi-tasking, siton a chair and rotate your feet in a clockwise motion.Then take your right hand and draw a big figure 6 inthe air. You cannot do both things at the same time.Automatically, your right leg stops circling or rotatesthe other way, in the same direction as the number sixyou just made (interesting eh).

In a series of tests carried out at the Universityof London, an average worker's functioning IQ fell 10points when distracted by ringing telephones and incomingemails. This drop in IQ is more than double the fourpoint drop seen following studies on the impact of smokingmarijuana. In one experiment, a 29 per cent reductionin brain activity occurred in subjects who were mentallyrotating tasks. In another experiment, volunteers tooklonger to do the same tasks if they mentally rotatedbetween them compared to when they focused on each taskindividually until it was complete. In experiments whenanimals are taught to focus on one thing, a particularcircuitry fires. When they are distracted by somethingelse, the level of firing on the original circuitryis diminished. Just like humans, they lose focus. Themore interested you are and the more your attentionis captured on a particular task, the more activatedis the related mental circuitry.

These and many other experiments have led us to believethat despite what we want to think, our brain can onlyfocus on one task at a time. Multi-tasking is inefficient.The only exceptions to this are tasks that appear touse totally different parts of the brain, such as doodlingwhile listening to someone, and unless it is on thephone this is just pure rudeness.

The fact remains that our mind has not caught up withour technology. We now live in a world very differentfrom the one our mind was designed to inhabit and theconflict is confusing our mind and slowly killing us.Not only can we not focus, but even when we can, weare not focusing on what we should be. Focus does nothappen without our intention and motivation - it takeseffort and it also takes know how.

The most important first step is to focus on the rightthing. Focus on what you want - not what you don't want.You will get what you focus on, so if you focus on thenegative aspects of your life you will get them. Themore you talk about lack, the more you attract it. Shiftto having, not missing. When you focus on the positive- on real solutions - you get things done; you do thingsdifferently. This is called the Law of Attraction.

Many years ago I took a few friends of mine skiing.They were all novices so after a few hours getting usedto the skis we went up the first "kiddies' slope"at the top. The first person looked down this very mildslope and saw one lonely tree in the middle. There wereat least 50 metres of open space on either side. Butthis friend said, "I don't want to hit that tree"and despite all her best efforts, she managed to missall the open space and hit the tree. Fortunately, shewas going very slowly and she was already on her backside20 meters before the collision. I have no doubt thatshe hit the tree because she focused on it. You literallyattract what you focus on.

Another example of this you can see for yourself andthat has immediate results is your mood. If you focuson negative thoughts, you instantly change your mood.When you focus on being depressed, you not only beginto feel depressed but you also notice more depressionaround you. If you focus on happiness, you not onlyfeel happier but you also notice more happiness aroundyou. In one study, people were asked to focus on somesad childhood memories and when asked to identify situationsin a group of photos they selected negative aspectsof the photos compared to a control group. Similarly,another group shown negative videos reported more negativechildhood memories than a control group. This is calledmood congruence and you literally feel the way you arefocusing. On the other hand, if you want to feel happyfocus on some happy events and immediately your moodwill begin to change.
Einstein's laws of relativity were not discovered byfocusing on still objects. Instead, he imagined travellingat the speed of light. Flight was not found by focusingon objects on the ground. How to be healthy will notbe discovered by focusing on illness like most of modernmedicine- but focusing on being healthy and acquiringthe tools to get there will succeed.

This is why the past 50 years of psychotherapy, wheremany practitioners made the clients focus on their negativestates, has done so much harm to so many people. I knowtoo many people who have been crushed by psychotherapistscontinually encouraging them to relive the nightmaresof the past. The science shows that these techniquesdo not work. Focus on the positive; focus on the present.This is also not to advise that you live in a dreamyworld where you try to make everything positive; justdon't put all your attention on the negative.
A number of motivational or health programs fail becausethey create negative goals, for example, in the processof weight loss. To lose weight implies that there issomething that you have to stop doing, something youhave to give up. Similarly, with the Quit campaign whereyou have to give up smoking, the focus is on the negative.Both of these programs could quite as easily be calledthe "Gain Life" program or "Get Health"program or "Live Longer" program, focusingon positive rather than negative choices. This approachwould also build positive steps into the programs suchas short exercise, relationship building, social eventsand then taking the negative things out - that is, movingaway from the negative. Without having the right focusit is likely that the programs will ultimately fail.
We are what we ask

One of the most effective ways of focusing thoughtsis by using questions. Humans evolved with questions;in fact, it is our questioning minds that have takenus so far so fast. Questions tap into the sub-consciousand super-conscious minds. Our mind is continually askingquestions (but not necessarily the right type of questions)in an attempt to further our survival. A two year oldjust asks questions: "Why, Mummy?" and "Why,Daddy?" This is their way of coming to grips withthe world, finding out how it works and where they fitinto it. At home, school and university, as well asin the workplace, we often condition people to stopasking questions. Once we stop asking questions, westop growing. Change this because the only way to learnis by asking questions. Einstein knew this, and so shouldyou.

Questions not only help us make sense of the worldaround us but also provide direction to our mind. Thepart of the mind that frames the questions is the prefrontalcortex. The prefrontal cortex is like the orchestraconductor - it literally tries to direct the rest ofthe mind. One way it does this is by framing questions.An example of this is when you meet someone you knowbut can't recall her name, and you repeatedly ask yourself,"What's her name?" Usually, somewhere fromfive seconds to five hours later, you recall her name.The prefrontal cortex created the question and directedit to the rest of the mind. It then went about answeringthe question behind the scenes but always working untilthe answer was found.

Your mind is a little like an iceberg. At the topand above the surface is your conscious mind, directedand often dominated by your prefrontal cortex. Belowit is the majority of your brain capacity, the sub-consciousand super-conscious that are always working behind thescenes. Yet at school and university we often teachpeople to focus only on the tip of the iceberg - theconscious thinking mind, the modern busy mind.

We also often learn early on in life to use the wrongtypes of questions like, "Why me?" and "What'swrong with me?" or "How come this always happensto me?" and so on. Your mind then goes on answeringthese and comes up with as many reasons as possible.If you want to be more negative ask these questions.If you want to keep procrastinating ask, "Why doI procrastinate so much?" If you want to keep asloppy desk ask, "Why do I keep such a sloppy desk?"Whatever questions you ask, your mind will try to answer.Poor questions focus on the problem, not the solution,and don't help. Get the picture? You get what you focuson.

To tap into this ability you can learn to ask the rightquestions and to bring them into your control as questionsthat focus on solutions. Geniuses constantly ask questions.Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest genius of alltime, asked questions like "What would it be liketo fly or to travel under the water?" Einsteinasked great questions like "What would it be liketo travel on a lightning bolt and what would I experiencewhen I did?" All the great discoveries have comeout of the minds of people asking questions and then,when they got their answers, they asked more questionsto keep building on their mental scaffolding. The rightquestions create new possibilities and new futures.
All the top sports or business people have asked theright success questions. "How can I do better?""How can I use that idea?" "How do Ibecome more productive?" Ask questions on how toimprove your life, relationships and work - how youcan continually improve yourself. Ask questions to focuson the solutions, not problems.

Peter Dingle is Associate Professor in Health and theEnvironment at Murdoch University, Perth Western Australia

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