Put your knowledge to the test with the accompanying brain teasers

The world is moving at an ever-accelerating pace around us. Distractions that demand our attention appear more numerous than ever before in human history. Social media, endless advertising, the insanity of the modern news cycle and the stresses of managing life day to day all seem to compete for our focus, with no obvious victor on the horizon.

The rise of the digital age in the 1980s and 1990s, originally hailed as a wonderful boon to learning and intellectual endeavors, has required our brains to literally rewire themselves in order to navigate and cope with the amount of information available.

Research into the capacity of the human brain's working and long-term memory has found that limitations in the former affect our ability to process and retain information in the latter. A range of studies dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s began to explore the idea of mental capacity, effort and how we process information.

The relationship between stress, effort and attention

In seminal experiments conducted at Harvard University, 2002 Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman showed that attention and effort were closely linked to autonomic stress responses. Most specifically, pupil dilation was found to be highly indicative of stress due to mental processing. By examining the relationship between cognitive demand and the human eye, a window was opened into the human psyche that allowed us to cultivate insights into how the brain reacts to increasing levels of mental effort and what factors aid our concentration and focus. (Kahneman, 1973)

It was identified that different tasks make different processing demands on the limited capacity of our attention and working memory. Those requiring a mental response such as solving a problem or rehearsing a performance, and any activity carried out under pressure of time, will place increased demands on our mental capacity.

Interestingly, the task of learning through rote memorisation requires far less effort than recalling the information being acquired. At the least strenuous end of the scale, tasks that are thoroughly practiced, rehearsed or repetitive will place little demand on our working memory and mental effort. This is because they’re largely being drawn from experiences that have been stored in our long-term memory via repeated experience.

Laying the groundwork for less cognitive strain

We have all experienced this contrast in our personal experience. When taking a regular route to get to work or school, our brain can essentially go on autopilot when it comes to the effort involved in navigation. We can multi-task and focus on other activities as we make our way to our destination on time with ease. But consider the amount of focus and effort required when attempting to get to an appointment at an unfamiliar destination.

We not only focus on every detail of our route, struggling with intersections and addresses; we expend energy stressing over the time it takes to get there, unfamiliar traffic flows and any impediment thrown in our path. Until the unfamiliar becomes familiar, our brain will find the cognitive strain of such processing bothersome and draining.

In order to cope with stress stemming from unfamiliar experience, our processing speed will improve as we practice tasks and explore problems from a variety of angles. The more varied situations we can expose ourselves to with regularity, the more groundwork we lay in our brains for dealing with future experiences that are similar in nature.

Try to avoid practicing or rehearsing tasks or experiences in a distracting setting, though. The ability to focus and process information is greatly debilitated when our brains are bombarded with too much input information.

Puzzle #1

Place six circles in six different squares, such that there is never more than one circle in each row, column or diagonal

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If the rows are labeled top to bottom as 1-6 and the columns are labeled left to right as A-F, the circles would go in cells A5, B3, C1, D6, E4 and F-2.

Why and when our brain struggles to focus

Research conducted in the late 1980s by J. Sweller at the University of New South Wales in Australia and in the early 1990s by F. Paas and J. Van Merriënboer at the University of Twente in the Netherlands first described the theory and measure of the nature of cognitive load. In these studies (and many offshoot studies), the theory was applied to learning processes and instructional design, and many offshoot studies have since used this model to explain why humans can see their learning restricted by distractions that infringe upon the limited processing capacity of working memory.

Essentially, when our brain is required to process too much or too varied information, it struggles to focus and we end up gaining only a superficial understanding of whatever task we are undertaking. Depending on the individual, the cognitive load that their brain is capable of handling will vary, but everyone will struggle to digest and process information presented in a chaotic manner or environment.

Thus if we hope to improve our ability to focus on tasks we are spending time and energy on, it makes sense to remove as many distractions as possible from our surroundings. The fewer distractions, the easier it will be for our brain to manage its cognitive load.

The aforementioned research by Kahneman on Attention and Focus also found that momentary effort of any task must be distinguished from the total amount of effort required to complete the task. This is analogous to how the strain of running a 60-yard dash is more intense than that of walking 2 miles, despite the energy expenditure in the latter likely exceeding the former.

Similarly, intense and time-pressured absorption of information (cramming) is far more mentally straining than more drawn-out assimilation through reading a book or listening to a lecture. This highlights the fact that taking our time to learn new tasks or acquire knowledge is far less strenuous—and typically more effective—than trying to quickly memorise or process tasks in a short period of time.

How cognitive load impacts decision-making

The strain of mental processing increases for tasks requiring us to store information in our short-term working memory. Our ability to make decisions is also impacted by cognitive load.

A variety of research has shown that when in the midst of tasks that require intense levels of attention and focus, people are more likely to make selfish decisions, use abusive language, make less healthy food choices, etc. Essentially when we are attempting to concentrate on a task, the control mechanisms in our brain are otherwise occupied and we revert to more primordial behavior.

It has also been shown that if we are anxiously concerned with success or failure in a given task, it occupies precious space we could be using to complete the task successfully and negatively impacts performance. If we wish to do our best, it serves to be cool, calm, composed and confident. A preternatural ability to focus on a task requiring high cognitive loading may explain why professional athletes describe blocking out stadium noise and visual distractions when they focus on playing their game.

Less understood by many is the fact that our state of interest and mental arousal affects our ability to focus on a task. When we are more interested in a task, we focus on it more intensely, and a variety of outside factors can impact upon this state of mental arousal.

As we become more intensely focused our brain will focus on a narrower and narrower band of inputs. As arousal increases from a state of relaxation, this natural ability to block out distractors is helpful. It lets us pin-point the key features of the task necessary for optimal success while blocking out information that doesn't aid in its completion.

Unfortunately, this relationship eventually becomes detrimental as our level of focus goes beyond ideal, into a realm of single mindedness or tunnel-vision. Once we surpass our optimal state of arousal in focusing on a task, our focus begins to block out information that is necessary for successful task completion. We ignore information that would aid us or improve our results.

Puzzle #2

Find 12 other ways to divide the grid into 2 congruent pieces

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There are far more than 12 possible patterns, but the key is identifying the centre point of the grid and ensuring one of the pattern lines passes through it

What outside factors help optimise our level of mental arousal?

Being well rested is a significant factor that most people are already aware of. Our level of wakefulness is directly related to our ability to maintain alert observation.

Interestingly though, when sufficiently motivated, it is entirely possible for a sleep-deprived person to raise their state of interest and focus to the level necessary to complete tasks successfully. Difficulty for the sleep deprived arises with continuous performance. Without adequate rest, we perform more poorly in sequential tasks requiring our attention.

In addition to physical rest, it has been shown through research that exerting one's will or self-control has an effect of ego depletion that negatively influences the ability to complete subsequent tasks requiring focused effort. Controlling our own behavior is stressful and requires energy. If we expend significant amounts of energy prior to being presented with a task, we are likely to give up on them more quickly or fail in their completion.

The impact of noise on concentration

Another less well-known factor is the brain's response to background noise levels. Our levels of focus and attentiveness can actually increase when exposed to loud background noise. This is due to heightened levels of interest brought on by the noise, which shifts our initial state of mental arousal and improves task performance. High levels of background noise actually improve performance on simple tasks, while moderate amounts will improve results on more complex tasks.

Sound exposure has limitations. As noise levels increase beyond optimal levels, they can become distracting and negatively impact our decision making and focus. The ideal amount of background noise to aid in successful completion of a task varies for each individual task and person attempting to complete it.

Training your brain through games

Modern brain-training regimens and programs have resulted in a mixed bag of research results and the benefits vary significantly for different uses and methods. (Rabipour, 2012) The most reliably effective techniques include strategy training around memory, reasoning and speed of process. These methods have been shown to improve the abilities to focus in children with ADHD and delay typical cognitive decline in healthy adults as they age.

In 2006, journalist Joshua Foer was crowned the USA Memory Champion. (Foer, 2011) He won the competition and set a world record in the process. He accomplished this by practicing (on his own) a form of strategy training whereby he memorised tedious facts by associating them with jarring, eccentric images an individual would have difficulty forgetting.

Computerised brain-training games may benefit from a placebo effect of sorts, but typically users show improvement in trained tasks that shows limited transferability to other skills. Thus if we hope to improve our abilities to focus and process information using computerised tools, it makes sense to use tools that closely simulate the tasks we hope to improve in.

If you hope to improve your ability to track and focus on probable outcomes while playing cards, it makes sense to use computerised simulations of the same games to improve response times and mental calculations. The skills one would use and easily train in online poker rooms are easily transferrable to live poker.

Puzzle #3

Each disk in the diagram can be moved in an L-shape (i.e. 1 square left, 2 squares down). No two disks can occupy the same square at the same time. Find the minimum number of moves it takes to switch the positions of the orange and white disks

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The lowest number of moves to switch the positions of the orange and white disks is 16. If each slot on the 3x3 grid is numbered from 1 to 9 (as with a key pad) the moves required would be:

1 - 8, 7 - 6, 9 - 2, 3 - 4,
8 - 3, 6 - 1, 2 - 7, 4 - 9,
3 - 4, 1 - 8, 7 - 6, 9 - 2,
4 - 9, 8 - 3, 6 - 1, 2 - 7

Tips for improving concentration and focus

So to summarise, if we wish to improve our concentration and focus all of the following can help:

  • Remain well rested
  • Be aware of your limitations when it comes to working memory
  • Practice and rehearse tasks as thoroughly and regularly as possible
  • Limit distractions and try to take your time assimilating unfamiliar information
  • Finding our ideal levels of mental arousal when it comes to interest and background noise
  • Be aware that it is possible to focus too heavily on a task, tunnel-vision reduces our abilities
  • Limit environmental stressors such as temptations or conflict that require self control
  • Mindful meditation, body awareness and yoga can all help improve our ability to self regulate and limit the effects of the aforementioned environmental stressors
  • Strategy training for memory, reasoning and speed of process has been shown to be effective in improving concentration and focus
  • Computerised brain training games are most useful if they simulate the tasks we hope to improve in

Everyone's brain is an aspect of themselves they can train like any muscle. If you focus on training it using the right methods in the right settings, it can and will do wonderful things.

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