How You Can Achieve Focus on a Task |  | Andrew Huberman and Lex Fridman

Written by on May 11, 2022 in Conscious Living, Thrive with 0 Comments
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Lex Fridman: Is there advice you have for how to achieve focus on a task?

Andrew Huberman: Yes, first of all, we have to distinguish between modulators and mediators, and i'll do this very briefly. There are a lot of things that will modulate your state of focus, but they don't directly mediate your sense of focus. So, for instance, if right now a fire alarm went off in this building, it would modulate our attention. We would get up and leave. It'd be very hard to do what we're doing with that banging in the background, at least at first. So it's modulating focus, but it's not really involved in the mechanisms of focus right?

In the same way, being well-rested when you sleep, your autonomic nervous system that adjusts states of alertness and focus and calm works better than when you're sleep-deprived. So if you're sleeping better you're going to focus better. So I always answer this way to a question like this, because the best thing that anyone can do for their mental health, physical health and performance in athletic or cognitive, endeavors or creative endeavors is to make sure that you're getting enough quality sleep, enough of the time for you. And that's going to differ. We could talk about what that means.


Now in terms of things that mediate focus, without getting in the description of mechanisms, because we have podcasts about that. It's very clear that mental focus follows visual focus – provided that you're a sighted person. Much of the training that's being done now in China to teach kids to focus better, literally has them stare at a target blinking every so often, but really training themselves to breathe calmly and maintain a tight visual aperture?

When you read, you have to maintain a tight visual aperture. You're literally scrolling like a highlighter in your mind's eye. Right? It's kind of obvious once you hear it. So for people that have problems focusing: sleep well, learn to dilate and contract your visual field consciously. This can be done if you practice it a little bit.

And then be, as i said before, it is very hard to get into a state of focus like a step function immediately like snapping your fingers. What you can do is you can pick any object, but ideally an object at roughly the same distance placed it roughly the same distance to which you're going to do that work and stare at it. You're allowed to blink and, as your mind starts to drift every once in a while (understand, that's normal), but try and narrow your visual aperture and bring that into your visual field. So that that's the most prominent thing – kind of like portrait mode in your phone.


This would look very different in portrait mode than it would in just a standard photograph mode. And then, after doing that for 30 to 60 seconds, moving into the work that you're about to do and really encourage yourself to do that. If you're somebody who's low vision or no vision, you're going to use your ears to do this.

Braille readers have trouble focusing sometimes because they feel other stuff and they hear other stuff. So you learn to adjust that aperture consciously. And then, of course, the pharmacologic tools; just enough caffeine, but not too much. Right?

We've talked about white noise, brown noise, music or no music. It really varies, but it's very clear that binaural beats of 40 hertz can shift the brain into a heightened state of focus and cognition.

So if you're going to use binaural beats, which should definitely be used with headphones. And there are a number of free apps out there and sources. 40 hertz seems to be the frequency that best supports the brain shifting into a particular focus.

Lex Fridman: Can you give us some binaural beats?

Andrew Huberman: Yeah, so you're going to want to find a an app that offers 40 hertz. I think Brainwave allows you to slide bar up to the particular frequency that you want. And i should say that there are other frequencies that are interesting, but 40 hertz binaural beats seems to be the one that there's the most quality research on.

Lex Fridman: So you're saying there's a lot of mixed science on the on white noise,,,.

Andrew Huberman: Yeah. You really should be doing this with headphones, because binaural beats are best accomplished by feeding two different frequencies to the two ears. And then you have what's called the this brainstem area that reads out what are called interaural time differences and then it extracts the the delta, essentially.

Lex Fridman: Turn it on.

Andrew Huberman: And then in other things that can enhance focus. So you know the pharmacology around this is pretty interesting, Things that tickle the dopamine pathway and the acetylcholine pathway – they work.

There's your ritalin, your adderalls, your modafinils, which are prescription. And there's a lot of non-prescription use of those prescription drugs – not so much in my generation, but in people 35 and younger. You know, I hear all the time from day traders and programmers and stuff and kids that play video games a lot of ritalin / adderall use. I think that unless it's prescribed by a doctor for its specific purpose of ADHD, I don't think people should go that route, frankly It hits the dopamine system way too hard, and also has a number of negative effects on sexual side effects. All sorts of things that you just wouldn't want

Andrew Huberman: There are a few compounds like Alpha GPC um, 300 milligrams to 600 milligrams of Alpha GPC with a cup of espresso. If you're well rested, you're like a laser for 90 minutes, maybe two hours, but then it's going to taper off. And you have to just recognize that.

And then there's this whole world of nootropics now and people trying to figure out that racetams, paracetams, and phenolethylamine combined with this. And you know, it's not quite in the place where you'd like it to be. There are a few companies that are doing this better than others. We talk about some of these on the podcast, but I would always start with behavioral tools. And then consider pharmacology.

And then I suppose the other thing for focus is they're these – this is a little more esoteric but we cover this in an episode on workplace optimization: where you place your screen is important. Staring down at a screen is not going to be as effective as placing it at eye level or above you. When the eyes are up literally, your eyes are directed forward or up, the brain stem centers for alertness are activated. When your eyes are down, it's like being pulled underwater a little bit in the autonomic arousal sense. You're closing your eyes… it reflects the brain stem centers that for alertness are becoming less active.

But there's a really cool effect that's active in this room right now, which is that there's been some really interesting studies that when people work in small compact spaces or wear a hoodie or a hat, that can also improve focus – like blinders on a horse, for obvious reasons now based on what I said before.

But also, analytic work or the kind of work where there's a correct answer that you're seeking is best supported by these kind of low ceiling environments. Whereas there's something called the cathedral effect, which is when you work in an outdoor environment or a high ceiling environment, it lends itself to kind of, pun intended, kind of loftier ideas and more creativity. And that probably has to do with the fact that there's a natural tendency, a reflex, to expand your visual field in these high ceiling environments.

Expansion of the visual field changes the way the brain works in the time domain. Your engineering and biology oriented listeners will understand this and music. For those that don't, the best way to think about it is when you have a narrow focus (portrait mode on your phone) or you're very alert, you are fine slicing life in time.

Think of it as a high frame rate like you're shooting in slow motion. When you dilate your view you're taking bigger time bins. And the one way to just let this hopefully land home, is that if you've ever had a really exciting day or podcast interview or experience of any kind, your system is flooded with dopamine and norepinephrine, alertness, and motivation, all this excitement. It seems like it goes by very, very fast. And yet, when you think back to that, it seems like a lot happened. This happened, and that happened.

Now think about waiting in the doctor's office in a blank waiting room with no interesting art on the walls. It feels like it goes by very, very slow – dopamine and norepinephrine are all-time low. And yet, when you think back on that experience, it's as if nothing happened because you were parsing time differently.

So those are roughly the tools and the neurochemicals around time perception and the time domain.

There's a wonderful book, I'm forgetting the title (so wonderful, I forget the title) by Dean Buonomano from UCLA. I think it's called “Your Brain is a Time Machine.” It talks about this expansion and contraction of the time domain and what you can do to leverage it for work and creativity, focus, and so on.

Lex Fridman: Yeah, it's fascinating that I think one way to define focus for me is the experience, the feeling of focus is losing track of time. It's getting to a place where you're no longer up operating in time.

Andrew Huberman: Well, and you mentioned being, you know, kind of cramming for something. Well, you'll release a lot of adrenaline. And, it is true you can get a lot done under pressure because of the way that you're slicing time. You don't actually have more time. It's that you're finally in a brain state that lends itself well to parsing information really quickly. Now, if we ramp up your level of stress enough, it's definitely a more or less normal distribution.

We get you stressed enough, it's hard to remember anything, you're not parsing time well. But in that middle range, almost every study shows that the higher levels of autonomic arousal, meaning adrenaline in your system, the more effective you are at things. And you know we always hear stress and adrenaline it's just bad, bad, bad.

But my colleague Ali Crum, at Stanford, has done these beautiful studies where if you just educate people on how adrenaline makes them sharper thinkers, they become sharper thinkers. If you educate them on the fact that stress makes your cognition worse, their cognition gets worse.

This is why I don't wear a sleep tracker. If you tell people they slept poorly, your recovery score sucks, they naturally perform less well the next day than if you tell them your recovery score is high. And so i don't have anything against those companies, in fact, their technology can be very useful in certain contexts. But you want to determine your mindset around these things and, if you tell yourself hey deadlines make me sharp, pressure makes me sharp, you will perform better.

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