Concentration … not helped by the monkey mind.
The next time you walk into a room and forget why you’re there, blame a monkey.
That kind of distraction is a classic case of “monkey mind”, according to Ramesh Manocha, a senior lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Sydney.
“The mind is understood, at least in the east, to have a monkey-like nature,” said Dr Manocha, who has studied the effects of meditation on the brain.
“And that monkey mind is a thing that produces this constant background mental chatter.
“It’s the thing that distracts you when you’re doing a task, it’s the thing that keeps you awake when your head’s resting on the pillow and you can’t understand why it won’t shut up so you can go to sleep.”
So what’s the key to getting the monkey off your back and improving your concentration and focus?
Dr Manocha said it comes down to meditation, with his studies showing those who studied Sahaja Yoga meditation – which focuses on mental silence – had more activity in the parts of the brain associated with sustaining attention.
But if you’re sitting at your desk, struggling to concentrate there are some simpler things you can do to refocus.
“One way is a simple zen exercise which is to ask yourself ‘where is my attention?’ and that quite often helps you bring your attention back’,” Dr Manocha said.
“The second thing is to focus on the absolute present moment and you find two things occur.
“One is when you that when you focus on the present moment there’s no cluttered thinking activity.
“Secondly that enables you to bring your attention onto the present rather than things that are happening in the future or the past.”
Kirsten Peterson, head of the performance psychology discipline at the Australian Institute of Sport, said concentration can be generally improved by avoiding thinking too far ahead.
“Athletes can often be derailed by thinking ‘I have to win this’ or simultaneously they’re ahead and they start to relax because they think ‘I’ve already got it won’.
“They don’t allow themselves to stay in the moment and execute what they need to do in order to ensure the outcome happens.”
Taking breaks from tasks is also an important factor for good concentration, she said.
“You don’t have unlimited endurance psychologically any more than you do physically.”
And if a particular task is not engaging, it doesn’t help to think about how bored you are, she said.
“Generally, if your self talk is going around the idea that ‘this is so boring’ then you have lost the fight already.
“It’s about immediately changing the self talk and finding something engaging within the task.”
Can foods help concentration?
Amanda Patterson, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, said there was good evidence that iron deficiencies in children negatively impacted on their concentration levels.
It’s less clear what effects a lack of iron has on concentration in adults, Dr Patterson said.
“There’s evidence for other nutrients on concentration and attention span – two that spring to mind would be vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fatty acids.”
Foods that are good sources of those nutrients included lean red meat, chicken and fish, she said.