Have you ever felt like you needed to take a break to keep your attention? And, have you often fought the urge thinking that you needed to concentrate harder — only to end up losing your focus?
New research suggests you should have listened to you inner self and taken a break.
Scientist say the new findings overturn traditional theory about the nature of attention and demonstrates that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.
The study zeroes in on a phenomenon known to anyone who’s ever had trouble doing the same task for a long time: After a while, you begin to lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.
Some researchers believe that this “vigilance decrement,” as they describe it, is the result of a drop in one’s “attentional resources,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Dr. Alejandro Lleras, who led the new study.
“For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it,” he said.
“But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem.”
Lleras had noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception: The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin.
The body becomes “habituated” to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain.
In previous studies, Lleras explored the limits of visual perception over time, focusing on a phenomenon called Troxler Fading: when continual attention to a stationary object in one’s peripheral vision can lead to that object’s complete “disappearance” from view.
“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness,” Lleras said.
“So I thought, well, if there’s some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our mind!”
In the new study, Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga tested participants’ ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour under various conditions. The 84 study subjects were divided into four groups:
- The control group performed the 50-minute task without breaks or diversions.
- The “switch” group and the “no-switch” group memorized four digits prior to performing the task, and were told to respond if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task. Only the switch group was actually presented with the digits (twice) during the 50-minute experiment. Both groups were tested on their memory of the digits at the end of the task.
- The “digit-ignored” group was shown the same digits presented to the switch group during the task, but was told to ignore them.
As expected, most participants’ performance declined significantly over the course of the task.
But most critically, Lleras said, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time. Simply having them take two brief breaks from their main task (to respond to the digits) allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment.
“It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups performance was so clearly dropping off,” Lleras said.
This study is consistent with the idea that the brain is built to detect and respond to change, Lleras said, and suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.
“We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
There are certain scenarios that every parent of an ADHD child dreads: We all cringe and hold our breath when
the school calls. We brace ourselves when we hear a teacher chasing after us, calling our name as we beat a hasty retreat to our cars after school. And we probably all suffer from mild PTSD at the mention of the word "homework."
For me, homework immediately conjures up images of the struggle to get the right assignments written down and all the right materials home to do the work. I can't tell you how often I have been overwhelmed and grumpy before we've even started the actual assignments.
For an ADHD child, focusing takes a great deal more mental energy than it does for a child without it. By the time they sit down to do their homework, ADHD children are already mentally exhausted from having to work on focusing all day at school. Keeping them on track and focusing during homework can feel a lot like trying to sit on a stack of bowling balls — they are just about everywhere but where you need them to be.
Over the years we've been raising our own ADHD child, my husband and I have realized it doesn't have to be that hard. Here are some tricks that we've used to ease the pain of homework:
1. Make Sure Your 504/IEP Addresses Homework
A 504/IEP is designed to help a child be successful. Become familiar with accommodations and modifications that can help y
our child succeed. Modified homework is a lifesaver, showing proof of understanding without doing all assigned problems. Breaking large projects down and turning in benchmarks makes them more manageable. Keeping a set of textbooks at home ensures no forgotten materials. Tailor your 504/IEP to your child's needs.
2. Take a Break
Busy schedules and a tired child can make it seem like getting right on homework is better than waiting. But I've found that a short break — 30 minutes to an hour — doing something the child finds relaxing is a lot like pushing a reset button. Time to get something to eat and unwind restores a bit of that mental energy and makes it easier for your child to sit down, focus, and get to work.
3. Mix It Up
Don't be afraid to abandon the traditional way of doing things. Every child has subjects they enjoy and those they dread. We learned to mix it up, having a child switch back and forth doing a few problems of each at a time. Be creative in using rewards for work. A good friend's son loves to play piano: Each time he finishes an assignment, he gets play for 10 minutes. Keeping the end goal in mind helps us find creative solutions to the homework dilemma.
4. Fidgeting Helps Focus
Most ADHD kids work better with something to occupy part of their brain while the rest works on a central task. We call them fidgets. A stress ball to squeeze, gum to chew, or music playing in the background can all help focus. Don't be afraid to try different fidgets out to see what combination works best.
5. Get the Credit — You Earned It
There's nothing worse than finding out all that painstaking work you did was lost or never turned in. Find out if your school offers a digital gradebook that allows parents to see which assignments are missing. You can create a system that ensures your child's (and your) hard work gets the credit it deserves if you work with the school. An intervention teacher who collects homework and makes sure it is delivered may be the answer. Regardless of the method, communication is the key to fixing this problem.
Homework is a part of life, and problems with homework are a part of ADHD. While there may never be a day when homework is a fast, painless process in our house, staying on top of it and being willing to try the unconventional has certainly made it less traumatic for me and for my children.
Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health. See More
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