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Concentration is maintaining your focus. You can improve your concentration by eliminating distractions. For example, background noise makes it harder to concentrate. In a study from University College London, introverts and extroverts were tested for memory and reading comprehension while listening to pop music or sitting in silence1. Background music caused introverts to perform worse, whereas extroverts were only mildly affected. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, it’s a good idea to get some peace and quiet when you need to concentrate.

Have you ever found yourself working on two tasks at the same time? You may feel busy, but you’re not being very productive. That was the conclusion of a study from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the University of Michigan2. Researchers observed students switching between different tasks, such as solving math problems and classifying geometric objects. Results showed that switching cost increased with task complexity. On average, switching time accounted for 25–45 percent of the total time required to perform the task. It’s hard to regain concentration when you switch to a new task. It’s better to finish one task before moving on to another.
To do two things at once is to do neither.
-Publilius Syrus

Take a Break
Similar to memory, it’s easier to concentrate when your brain is rested and relaxed. Researchers from Louisiana State University recruited students to enter data into a computer3. Students were assigned the following work-rest schedules: 60-minute work/10-minute rest, 30-minute work/5-minute rest, and 15-minute work/30-second rest. The 30/5 and 15/30 schedules resulted in the lowest eyestrain and blurred vision. The 15/30 schedule also reduced discomfort in the lower neck and lower back. Overall, students achieved the fastest speed and highest accuracy with 15 minutes of work followed by 30 seconds of rest.

Smart Siesta
If breaks are good, what about naps? At Hiroshima University, Japanese students sat in front of a computer monitor, and watched it flash a set of three digits for 1 second, followed by a set of eight digits for 2.5 seconds4. Researchers then asked students if the first three digits were present in the following eight digits. After an hour of this task, half of the students lay down and took a 20-minute nap. The other half sat in a chair and relaxed for 20 minutes. After the break, both groups of students resumed the task for another hour. Students who napped were more alert, showed less mental fatigue, and performed better than students who relaxed in a chair.

Refreshing Sleep
A good night’s sleep is even more important than rest breaks or naps. At the Centre for Sleep Research in the University of South Australia, volunteers stayed awake for 28 hours straight5. A second group drank 10–15 grams of alcohol at 30-minute intervals, until their mean blood alcohol level reached 0.10 percent. Then both groups were given a series of tests to assess mental performance. Results showed that a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent was equivalent to 17 hours of sustained wakefulness. A level of 0.10 percent was equivalent to 24 hours without sleep. To put this in perspective, a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent is legally impaired, and most light drinkers pass out at 0.15 percent. Think twice the next time you pull an all-nighter before the big exam. You’ll perform better with a good night’s sleep.

How much sleep do you need for optimal performance? At the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, volunteers were assigned to four experimental conditions: 8 hours of sleep per night for 4 nights; 6 hours of sleep per night for 4 nights; 4 hours of sleep per night for 2 nights, or no sleep for 1 night6. Afterwards, all four groups were tested for memory, reaction time, and attention. No sleep gave the worst results, while 8 hours was the best. Six hours was borderline—alertness decreased after the first night only, and there was no change in memory or reaction time.

Healthy Brain
In addition to rest and relaxation, your brain needs exercise and proper nutrition to perform at its best. In a study from the University of Illinois, seniors were randomly assigned to one of two exercise programs: (1) walking, or (2) stretching and toning7. After 6 months, walkers improved their reaction time from 2,500 milliseconds to 2,000 milliseconds. There was no improvement with stretching and toning. Aerobic activities, such as walking, increase blood flow and oxygen to your brain. More oxygen leads to better mental performance.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that elderly women performed better on cognitive tests if they had been regularly taking vitamin C and vitamin E8. Their mental age was 1–2 years younger than women who had never taken either antioxidant. Fish is another good brain food. In a study from Norway, researchers tested seniors for memory, visual-motor skills, and word association9. Subjects who achieved the highest test scores ate an average of 70–80 grams of fish per day.

  1. Furnham A, Bradley A. (1997). Music while you work: the differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Appl Cognit Psychol. 11:445–455.
  2. Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans JE. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 27(4):763–797.
  3. Balci R, Aghazadeh F. (2003). The effect of work-rest schedules and type of task on the discomfort and performance of VDT users. Ergonomics. 46(5):455–465.
  4. Hayashi M, Chikazawa Y, Hori T. (2004). Short nap versus short rest: recuperative effects during VDT work. Ergonomics. 47(14):1549–1560.
  5. Dawson D, Reid K. (1997). Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature. 388:235.
  6. Drake CL et al. (2001). Effects of rapid versus slow accumulation of eight hours of sleep loss. Psychophysiology. 38:979–987.
  7. Kramer AF et al. (1999). Ageing, fitness and neurocognitive function. Nature. 400:418–419.
  8. Grodstein F, Chen J, Willett WC. (2003). High-dose antioxidant supplements and cognitive function in community-dwelling elderly women. Am J Clin Nutr. 77:975–84.
  9. Nurk E et al. (2007). Cognitive performance among the elderly and dietary fish intake: The Hordaland Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 86:1470–1478.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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