Dr. Ryan J. Giuliano and colleagues at the University of Oregon recently published a research report in the journal Psychophysiology. The findings reveal that the body’s two branches of the peripheral nervous system independently predict task performance and help to improve focus.
The findings contribute to a growing understanding of optimal brain functioning. For some time, psychologists and neuroscientists have speculated on the interplay between brain and body. But now there’s direct evidence that the peripheral nervous system (body) causes changes in central nervous system processing (brain), particularly with heightened selective attention.
Simply put: What you do to your body will directly impact your brain’s ability to improve focus. More important, you can heighten your selective attention by implementing tactical behaviors that harness the function of the peripheral nervous system’s two main branches: the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS).
Limit your multitasking to be more effective
Attention is everything. Directing it to one particular task can be a challenge, especially if you embody the always-on always-busy multitasking persona. Although it may sound like a useful skill, studies show that multitasking lowers your IQ, increases stress, and can even lead to permanent brain damage.
Multitasking, or divided attention, is a cognitive waste. The solution: heighten selective attention and boost the efficiency of your cognitive output. As this new research suggests, you can improve focus by implementing behavioral tactics and habits that routinely engage your SNS and PNS.
Let’s look at both systems separately.
Improve focus through PNS activation
Let’s begin with your PNS. This is the system that gets you into focused and relaxed state. It often kicks in when your body (and brain) knows it’s in a safe place. As you can imagine, this system is beneficial when you need to concentrate. So how do you get to this state of personal bliss? Try the following tactics:
Stimulate your “super nerve” on the go
There is a cranial nerve in your body that is often referred to as the “super nerve”. The vagus nerve, as its technically called, innervates your PNS. It travels all throughout the body and oversees all PNS activity. It is arguably the most important nerve in your body. By increasing its activation, your PNS function will naturally ramp up, thus improving selective attention.
So how do you activate this so-called super nerve? Try the following tactics: Take a cold shower. Studies show that when your body adjust to cold water, your SNS is weakened and your PNS becomes stronger. Humming, chanting and singing has a similar effect. Studies show that chanting the word “OM” repeatedly can stimulate the vagus nerve. Gargling water when you wake up in the morning can also create a domino effect, leading to enhanced selective attention.
Get a little move on with light exercise
Evidence suggests that performing low intensity exercises activates your PNS. For example, doing aerobic exercise – such as walking or swimming – for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week has been shown to enhance PNS function. Mind-body exercise such as Tai Chi, QiGong and Yoga have a similar effect. These exercises bring your attention to the body and dampen the ruminating thoughts of the monkey mind.
Quickly get in the zone using meditation apps
If your day is too hectic and you don’t have time to exercise, using an app is a great alternative.
A 60-second meditation session is all you need to clear your head and get in the zone. Try out these top rated meditation apps such as Headspace and Insight Timer. For those of you who are feeling a bit hesitant, download an app called 10% Happier. It’s specifically designed for meditation skeptics.
Improve focus through SNS activation
The opposing system, the SNS, gets activated in times of increased intensity and danger. Now, you might be wondering: If an increase in PNS activity helps strengthen selective attention, and if the two systems (PNS vs. SNS) have counteracting functions, how is it that an increase in SNS also improves selective attention? That is, how is it that a system which performs the opposite function results in a similar outcome?
The key, as this new research reveals, lies in having the right type and amount of SNS activity: directing your attention not towards potential threats but towards potential rewards.
Shift your focus to increase your attention
Anticipating and expecting rewards arouses the brain’s behavioural activation system (BAS). The BAS’s link to reward enhances selective attention through a unique SNS pathway. Just the right amount of BAS motivation can stimulate SNS and hone your attention to the item or experience that generates the reward.
You want to carve out little activities in your day that stimulate BAS (and therefore improve attention). Most of the rewards you receive at work and in business tend to be delayed. It’s difficult to connect your effort to the desired outcome, which can come months or even years down the road. This isn’t ideal for stimulating the brain’s BAS. What you should do instead is take all of your big goals and break them down into more manageable “how to” goals/tasks. Specifically, you can do the following:
- Convert abstract goals to concrete ones.
- Have all your how-to goals be action-based (rather than inaction-based).
- Break them down into sequences that are hours to a few days long (no more than a full week).
- Track your progress and set clear criteria for what’s considered a “win.”
- Most important, celebrate the wins as they happen.
This process of dissecting goals will maintain an optimal level of BAS, which in turn, will stimulate SNS and improve selective attention. In a positive feedback loop, heighted cognitive ability will further propel you towards goal achievement.
Added bonus: BAS motivation and SNS can also stimulate an immune response. In other words, enhancing reward motivation can make you physically healthier as well.
Get a big move on with intense exercise
The trick here is to run towards something, not away. SNS activity isn’t often associated with positive outcomes because it’s usually caused by overwhelming fear or dread. However, as mentioned above, when your SNS is activated by an incentive for reward, it takes on a whole new function. Anaerobic exercises are a beneficial way to enhance your SNS.
When performing these intense workouts, your body’s demand for oxygen increases. This causes your SNS to kick in and make the necessary physiological changes to meet a new demand. This includes increasing your heart rate and redirecting your blood flow from inactive organs to your muscles.
Great examples of anaerobic exercises are weight lifting, high intensity interval training (HIIT), and sprinting. However, due to the high demand for oxygen, too much anaerobic exercise in a short amount of time can put a strain on your body. So think of these exercises as a series of “little gains”. Rather than pushing yourself to quickly meet a goal, exercise at a healthy pace.
Solve brain teasers and cognitive puzzles
Doing a brain teaser is a great way to increase SNS activity without the negative side effects of panic and anxiety. Additionally, brain teasers sharpen your problem-solving skills, improve memory, and boost overall brain activity.
A team of researchers tested this link by examining participants while they completed the Monty Hall problem. Results showed that the participants were physiologically aroused during the task. This is possibly because the decision-making process of a brain teaser requires a higher attentional load. The researchers believed this increased demand for attention is what triggers your SNS.
Your PNS and SNS are like the dialectic of yin and yang. When working in opposition, they keep you balanced towards the enhancement of the desired outcome of selective attention and peak performance. Using these tactics, you can improve your ability to direct your attention to what really matters. The newest research behind this explains what’s happening under the surface.
The study: Hone selective attention to improve focus
The study examined whether or not selective attention is affected by both the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) simultaneously. To understand why this specific hypothesis is relevant, it’s important to know the difference between the two systems.
The PNS is your rest-and-digest system. It slows down your rate of breathing, it drops your heart rate and relaxes your blood vessels. This system generally kicks in after danger is averted. Parasympathetic stimulation is associated with more accurate performances on measures of working memory and sustained attention.
Opposite to this, the SNS is known as the fight-or-flight system. It prepares your body for action when you’re faced with a threat. When you are in this state, your muscles become tense and your vision narrows. Past findings are clear that sympathetic activity impacts attention. But whether it’s positive (heightening attention) or negative (hindering attention) depends on the situation at hand. The type of SNS activation (in combination with PNS) towards improving selective attention was the starting point for the current research.
Here’s how the study was done. Each participant was presented with two children’s stories. The two stories were simultaneously read out loud by a male and female narrator. The participants were instructed to selectively attend to one of the two stories while ignoring the other. While performing this task, the participant underwent an electrocardiogram (ECG). Electrodes were placed on their head and torso which measured PNS and SNS arousal.
The results of this experiment proved their hypothesis correct. Selective attention was associated with markers of both parasympathetic and sympathetic function. The PNS part makes sense. But why should SNS be associated with greater selective attention? In moments of stress and panic, a fight-or-flight response makes it difficult to control where your attention is directed. So shouldn’t SNS hinder selective attention as opposed to heighten it? The reason, we’ve learned, is because the system has another component beyond the primitive stress response.
The sympathetic nervous system also plays a role in reward-related activity. Research shows that you are unconsciously biased in favor of situations that may lead to a reward. These rewards can be either extrinsic or intrinsic. Examples of extrinsic rewards are pay raises, promotions, and public recognition. On the other hand, intrinsic rewards are intangible and you are motivated to achieve them for your own personal satisfaction. In the current study, a prize was not offered for performing the task successfully. Thus, the participants who were motivated to follow instructions and pay attention to one story were likely seeking an intrinsic reward.
Another related study examined SNS activity in participants. They found a boost in SNS activity with increasing incentive value. It suggests, therefore, that SNS activity is associated not just with stress response, but also with an enhanced motivation towards a reward or goal.
In the study performed by Dr. Giuliano and his colleagues, participants were told to sit calmly; they were not exposed to any additional threats or stressors. Thus, the researchers concluded that it was this reward-related SNS activity (not threat-related type) which contributed to the heightened selective attention.
Recap on improving focus with physiological changes
From the start of your day until the end, you are constantly bombarded with sensory information. If you were to pay attention to everything going on around you, you’d go into sensory overload. Selective attention is what helps keep you centered and your eye on the prize. It acts as a spotlight so you can focus on what’s important while ignoring irrelevant, outside information.
Heightening your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system is a scientifically proven way to enhance selective attention. You can accomplish this by exercising, doing brain teasers, meditating, stimulating your super nerve, focusing on rewards, and tapping into your intrinsic motivation. By using these tactics, you can increase your ability to stick to one task at a time and end your day feeling productive and satisfied.