Don’t let your brain boss you around

Posted on November 28, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray, neuresource group TV | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

 neuresource TV presents Linda Ray on Attentional Intelligence

Linda Ray Attentional Intelligence

Idea #1: The brain can change

One of the revolutionary insights to come out of neuroscience research over the last decade is that of neuroplasticity.

Up until recently, the brain was regarded as a physiologically static organ and that our brain structure was mostly immutable after the huge developments of early childhood. However, we now know that the brain has the ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, something that continues throughout life.

Not only does neuroplasticity allow the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease, but it can adjust in response to new situations, different stimuli, and changes in the environment.

While this seems like a small discovery, it’s hugely powerful, because it means that we are not captive to either nature or nurture in the way we once thought we were.  While both nature and nurture play important roles in shaping out brains and in forming our memories, behaviours, responses, and habits, they are not “destiny”. We have much more control than we used to believe. In effect, we can re-wire our brains.

Idea #2: Where your attention goes, energy flows

I’ve thought a lot about what neuroplasticity means – not just to the stroke or accident victim – but to all of us in our everyday lives and for us as leaders.

Simply becoming more aware of our responses and paying attention to the ways we want to alter them can give us the results we’re after. After all, where your attention goes, energy flows. And what flows through your attention sculpts your brain.

Attn chartI came up with the term “attentional intelligence” to describe the practice of using the power of attention to change the brain in subtle ways. Attentional intelligence is defined as “an intelligence that when highly developed allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be.” It is important to be curious about our attention if we intend to improve our “attentional intelligence” and the best news is it is not hard to do. What is hard is to make it a habit. Begin more intentionally noticing what is happening for you at what we refer to as the meta sensing level. Ask yourself what is happening in your body in the moment. Are you feeling calm or are you feeling a level or panic?

Next ask where is your attention focused that may be making you feel this way. Is it focused on a thought or narrative that keeps replaying in your head like a broken record or alternatively is it exactly where it is of most benefit and where you want it to be. The key is in noticing where your attention is focused and being more intentional in where you want it to be focused.

Next look at stepping out of your thinking in an impartial spectator way and notice what is in your narrative, what are you thinking and do you need to shift your thinking to support you to focus your attention in a different direction.

Idea #3:  It takes 23 minutes to regain focus

We live in a period of unprecedented complexity and distraction. It’s very easy to lose focus, to succumb to what I call “bright shiny object” syndrome. This is actually a normal response because we now know that the brain is designed to seek novelty and stimulation. It’s just that too much stimulation and novelty seeking can wreak havoc on focus and ruin productivity.

Every time you get distracted by an email or the ping of a text message, it can take up to 23 minutes to regain focus (particularly if you were on the verge of an insight or in a really heavy thinking task). Imagine what effect this has on productivity. Not only are we bombarded by these kinds of environmental interruptions, but our internal states also vie for our attention at any given moment.

Therefore, it’s important for each of us to be aware of our own attentional profile. Are you easily distracted? Do your moods take over? Do you find yourself on automatic pilot? Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer refers to this as when “the lights are on but no one is home”.

Developing attentional intelligence can help you tame both types of distractions. The practice of noticing where your attention is and bringing it back to where you want it to be will over time re-wire your brain. You’ll be able to notice distractions for what they are – your brain looking for novelty and reward. When you understand this it can assist you to resist the constant temptation of the smorgasbord of distractions vying for our attention. You’ll be better able to focus on the task at hand and at the end of the day you might have some left over energy to do some of the fun stuff.





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Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.




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Attention Matters: Taming Distraction by Developing Attentional Intelligence

Posted on October 26, 2012. Filed under: Linda Ray, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability.  Since 1992, Linda has successfully managed her own consultancy practice. During the past seven years, she has been interested in building ‘neurocapability’ using insights from neuroscience.  In this article, she turns her attention to the subject of ‘attention’—more specifically on ways to build productivity through ‘Attentional Intelligence’.


Attention is a limited resource

Think for a moment on your day to now. Where has your attention been focussed? Given the average worker spends around 2.5-3 hours per day on distractions, I suspect for many attention is not always focussed where we want it to be or where it is most productive. We often operate in a state of constant partial attention. Attention is drawn away by a multitude of enticing distractions in this ever increasing hyperkentic world we find ourselves in.

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell in an article for Harvard Business Review entitled “Why Smart People Underperform” has suggested this has led to a new neurological phenomenum referred to as Attention Deficit Trait. This may also explain why we spend a maximum of 12 minutes before we are interupted by either an internal or external distraction. In many instances—around 41% of the time—we don’t return to the original task. Our capacity to maintain attention in a focussed way is best done in 25-minute blocks, after which we should have a ‘brain break’. Attention is a limited resource and we need to use it wisely.


The myth of multi-tasking

Many people are trying to survive in this hyperkentic world by multi-tasking. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules weighs in: “To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

Since ‘multi-tasking’ is a misnomer, and the brain doesn’t simultaneously process work, but rapidly switches between various activities, we actually become less and less productive the busier we get.

To complicate matters further, we actually may be driven to multitask at the cost of cognitive rewards.  In a recent study, researchers from Ohio State University looked at the effects of media multitasking on college age students. The findings showed that emotional and habitual needs were most satisfied by multitasking, even if learning and thinking skills were reduced in the process.”They are not being more productive—they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work,” says Wang, an assistant professor involved in the study.  This emotional satisfaction may explain why we often feel addicted to being busy.

There is a way out of this quagmire, but it requires a completely different mindset for most people..

Building Attentional Intelligence

I have for a number of years now been intentionally noticing where my attention is placed rather than attaching my attention to a never ending train of thoughts or distractions in the external environment all vying for my notice.   In a previous post, I’ve confessed that I suffer from’ bright shiny object syndrome’ and as such my brain is particularly tuned to novelty. In ‘taming’ my mind I have had to put in place some clear practices which have supported my capacity to grow what I have started calling my ‘attentional intelligence’. This is different from emotional intelligence or social intelligence. It is an intelligence that, when highly developed, allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be.

According to psychologist and philosopher William James, attention “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts. … It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others”.

Jonah Lehrer, the author of a number of books on neuroscience, suggests that the mind has strict cognitive limitations. We know the part of our brain that houses our executive function tires easily. We also know our brain is programed for novelty. Selective attention helps in part to compensate for our cognitive limations. How can you select where your attention is?  Limiting distractions is a great starting point. As we have already seen distractions can sneak up on you even when you are trying to fully focus your attention.

Psychologists like Rosen support this:

How do we teach focus in a world that is constantly drawing our focus elsewhere? One idea is to use “technology breaks” where you check your phone, the web, whatever, for a minute or two and then turn the phone to silent, the computer screen off and “focus” on work or conversation or any nontechnological activity for, say 15 minutes, and then take a 1-2 minute tech break followed by more focus times and more tech breaks. The trick is to gradually lengthen the focus time to teach yourself how to focus for longer periods of time without being distracted.

So, turn off your mobile phone when you want to keep your attention fully focused on a task. When you are in a deep thinking space that phone call reminding you to pick up milk on the way home or email alert beep can impact on those fragile connections your brain is working hard to make to allow you to have that moment of genius to come up with a great idea or a solution to a tricky issue. It can take around 25 minutes to get back into the zone. Practice noticing where your attention is placed. Try not to be hard on yourself if you notice your attention jumping around a lot. This is quite normal. Just notice when this happens and without judgement bring your attention back to where you want it to be.  Do a check in starting out with attention tracking 3-4 times per day at a set time. The more you pay attention to paying attention you will notice increased capacity.

You’ll find that by training your focus, you tame distractions, enhance productivity, and maybe even calm those around you. Set yourself a goal of building your ‘attentional intelligence’.
Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability.  Since 1992 Linda has successfully managed her own consultancy practice.  NeuroCapability is her latest venture and incorporates the successful elements of 20 years of consulting experience in organisational change and development, training and coaching, with her passion for the  neuroscience of leadership.
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