Ability to Concentrate Isn't What It Used to Be

When you are rolled into the operating room at the hospital, you want to know that the surgeon is ready to concentrate on your procedure. When you board a jetliner for your next vacation destination, you want to know that the tower crew is rested and ready to direct the pilot through dense airport traffic.

Concentration is vital in some professions. Even in our everyday lives, though, we all need to concentrate—to avoid traffic accidents, to get the job finished, to remember important information. But with today's world filled with flashing images of MTV, quick news reports, and fast-food restaurants on every corner, are we capable of concentrating as well as we used to?

Before we answer that question, let's take a closer look at concentration, and its sibling, attention. Attention is a global term, used to describe a state in which you are interested in everything going on around you. Concentration focuses that attention on one specific thing.

Staying in focus

Attention and concentration developed in humans as defense mechanisms. Early humans had to be constantly vigilant or be eaten. But it's difficult to sustain a high level of attention for long periods of time without getting stressed out.

Stress is good in small quantities, but too much stress leads to burn out, accidents, or illness. Think of your life today. Stress? That's your middle name, right? Hurry here, hurry there, with never enough time in the day.

So, with all this stress and a culture that thrives on short takes, can we concentrate?

One reason people have trouble concentrating may be too much television. When a brain is bombarded by so many different stimuli, it's hard to concentrate on just one. Some experts have pointed out that a child's attention span is now about seven minutes—the length of time a program runs before a commercial break. In Europe, by contrast, attention spans seem to be longer—perhaps because there are longer gaps between commercials.

A concentration tune-up

To help tune up your concentration skills, practice these tips:

  • Cut back on the amount of television you watch, or your children watch.

  • Get enough sleep. The CDC recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for teens and adults, 10-11 hours for school kids, and even more for preschoolers and toddlers.

  • Avoid drinks that contain stimulants. Although caffeine or nicotine can give you a quick boost, it lasts only short time.

  • Pay attention to what you eat. A high-fat meal can leave you feeling lethargic, and not because the body needs the extra blood to help digest the food. Research has shown that you feel sleepy after eating a meal high in fat or refined sugar because these foods change the composition of the amino acids entering the brain.

  • Try to stay calm and relaxed. Take a short break of a few seconds to a minute every hour or so at work to break the tension cycle. Just taking a moment to breathe deeply and slowly can help you re-center yourself.