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    Ways to Develop Mental Focus and Concentration

    The ability to focus and concentrate on a single task is crucial for success, but it can be difficult in today's always-connected world. Emails are often sent at all hours of the day with new tasks or reminders that need attention. Facebook notifications pop up every few minutes, text alerts, calls and countless other distractions which challenge and impair our ability to focus. If you're looking for ways to improve your mental focus and concentration, these tips will help.

    Evaluate Your Mental Focus

    Before you start working on improving your mental focus, it's important to evaluate your current situation. It may seem like you're constantly distracted, but is that the case? Are all of those distractions legitimate, or are some just in your mind? If there are many real distractions around you and they're affecting your mental focus, then work on ways to minimize them as much as possible.

    It is also important to evaluate how strong your mental focus is. Your mental focus is good if:

    • It is easy for you to stay alert and concentrated on a task

    • You have the endurance to complete tasks without getting tired or bored.

    • You can stay focused despite distractions, long periods with no breaks, and changes in routines.

    Your mental focus is not so good if:

    • It's difficult for you to stay alert and concentrate on tasks

    • You daydream easily

    • You can't track your progress on a particular task.

    Exercises for Mental Focus:

    The Pomodoro Technique is a simple technique that can help improve mental focus and concentration. Set the timer on your phone to 25 minutes, and then work without interruption until it goes off. Take a five-minute break before starting another Pomodoro session, or go back to doing whatever you were doing previously until your task is completed.

    Focus is often improved with physical exercise, so get moving and improve your mental focus at the same time.

    Take breaks to alternate between working on a task for 45 minutes followed by a 15-minute break or 20-minute work sessions followed by two five-minute breaks to keep up the momentum. Working without interruption means that you are moving towards the right path to achieve mental focus.

    Find Creative Ways to Limit Your Focus

    Multitasking is a great way to have some hours where you feel productive, but it does more harm than good. It makes it hard for people to be detail-oriented and lose focus on what's essential when trying to do many things at once.

    One way to improve focus is to limit the number of tasks you undertake simultaneously.

    Try thinking of your attention as a spotlight. It can be pretty powerful when you maintain this focus, but unfortunately, the light will only illuminate one small area. It would be best if you widened the beam to tackle more extensive areas.

    To improve your mental focus, first, assess how you spend your time. One helpful point is to reduce the amount of multitasking you do and instead give full attention to just one task at a time.

    Focus on the Present

    It's challenging to stay mentally engaged when you are lost in your memories, worry about the future, or dismiss the present moment.

    Many people have heard of "being present," perhaps through yoga teachings and other mindfulness practices. It's all about clearing away distractions, whether physical (your mobile phone) or psychological (your anxieties).

    Being present in the moment is just as crucial for recapturing your mental focus. Living in today, being aware of what's happening now, and staying engaged with these details helps keep your attention sharp and entirely focused on the task at hand. It will take some time to practice this habit, but you can learn to live in the here and now.

    Mindfulness & Meditation

    Mindfulness is an important skill when you want to stay on task in a distracted world. To practice, do things such as take two deep breaths before tackling tasks; even rather than check your email, get up and stretch.  

    Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as trying a quick and easy deep breathing exercise.

    Start by taking several deep breaths while focusing on each one of them. When your thoughts naturally drift, gently guide it back to the breath, you’re taking.

    The idea of not being able to remain focused might seem like an easy task, but this is much more difficult than you think. Fortunately, there's something that can help with your concentration and staying on a task that you can do anywhere and anytime - breathing!

    Short Mental Breaks

    If you are trying to focus on a task for a long time, you might need to use a short break. This will give your brain some time to rest and process what it has been working on for the last while, enabling you to return with more focus than before.

    It's important not to get too wrapped up in something that doesn't provide any stimulation or enjoyment. For those extremely sensitive to distraction, taking a few "time-outs" from concentration by switching focus can have dramatic effects.

    So, when you are working on a long-term project, like your taxes or studying for an exam, be sure to give yourself intermittent mental breaks.

    Shift attention to something unrelated between small tasks to sharpen concentration and maximize performance when needed.

    (Nootropics)

    Nootropic is a general term meaning 'smart substances.' It can refer to supplements used to improve memory, create focus and motivation, and help you feel good about your abilities.*  It can also refer to nootropic research chemicals. 

    Nootropics are broadly categorized into natural or synthetic compounds. Dietary supplements and prescription drugs are other categories.

    Rounding out the top of the list for the best nootropic supplements are Sacred Lotus Extract, Phenethylamine (PEA), Wild Lettuce, Mulungu bark, Kanna, Mucuna pruriens, Bacopa Monnieri, Artichoke Leaf extract, KSM-66 Ashwagandha, Neurofactor, Coleus Forskohlii, Methylliberine (as Dynamine, Cognizin, PrimaVie (Purified Shilajit), Jujube extract, Theacrine (as Teacrine), Lion's Mane, Theobromine, and Alcar.

    The top known nootropic synthetic compounds are phenylpiracetam, piracetam, Fladrafinil, noopept, adamantyl carbonyl proline,  aniracetam, adrafinil, pramiracetam, phenibut, sulbutiamine, fasoracetam, oxiracetam, and coluracetam.

    Ending Note

    Building your mental focus can seem like an uphill battle, but it is achievable with the right approach. Becoming aware of the fact you are being distracted from personal goals and values, and to what degree is the first step to addressing the problem. 

    If you're struggling to achieve your goals and find yourself constantly getting sidetracked by unimportant details, it's time to start focusing on your mental strength. 

    By building your concentration skills, you will find that you can achieve more and focus on the things in life that truly bring you success, joy, and satisfaction.

    How the brain balances emotion and reason

    Navigating through life requires balancing emotion and reason, a feat accomplished by the brain region "area 32" of the anterior cingulate cortex. The area maintains emotional equilibrium by relaying information between cognitive and emotional brain regions, according to new research in monkeys published in JNeurosci.

    Emotional balance goes haywire in mood disorders like depression, leading to unchecked negative emotions and an inability to break out of rumination. In fact, people with depression often have an overactive area 25, a region involved in emotional expression. Healthy emotional regulation requires communication between cognitive regions, like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and emotion regions, like area 25, also known as the subgenual cortex. But because these two areas are weakly connected, there must be a middleman involved.

    Joyce et al. used bidirectional neuron tracers to visualize the connections between the DLPFC, area 25, and area 32, a potential middleman, in rhesus monkeys. The DLPFC connects to the deepest layers of area 32, where the strongest inhibitory neurons reside. Area 32 connects to every layer of area 25, positioning it as a powerful regulator of area 25 activity. In healthy brains, the DLPFC signals to area 32 to balance area 25 activity, allowing emotional equilibrium. But in depression, silence from the DLPFC results in too much area 25 activity and out-of-control emotional processing.

    Source: Society for Neuroscience

    Tips for Improving Your Mental Focus

    If you are like most people, there have been days where you just can’t seem to focus on your tasks. Between smartphones, constant emails, and a seemingly endless list of tasks, concentrating seems to get harder every single day. In fact, according to researchers at Harvard University, the average person is lost in thought 47% of the time. This can greatly affect productivity and discourage you from completing your daily workload in a timely manner. If you are having trouble concentrating, there are many ways to improve your mental focus both in the moment and long-term. Learn some of these ways you can retrain your brain, even when focusing seems impossible.

    Researchers find a "consciousness switch" deep in the brain

    There's an incredible amount we don't understand about the workings of the human body and brain, and consciousness itself remains one of the great mysteries of science. Which is weird, because in some senses it's about the only thing we can be sure exists. It doesn't matter whether life is a simulation, or even whether you really exist, I know that I'm having a subjective experience, and that may be the only truth each of us can be sure of.

    The fact that this subjective experience can be switched off, whether by dropping into a deep sleep, getting knocked out or going under anesthesia, does nothing but add to the weirdness of it all. Things are happening to and around you, your awareness is just not online. The fact that there are highly paid and highly trained anesthetists who put people to sleep for a living merely reflects decades of trial and error, rather than a complete understanding of how an anesthetic drug works.

    Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, appear to have made a bit of a breakthrough. In a study published in the journal Neuron, the team showed that at a frequency of 50 Hz, electrical stimulation of the central lateral thalamus, a region once thought of mainly as a relay, amplification and processing station, was able to pull macaque monkeys out of an anesthetized state and elicit normal waking behaviors.

    Scientists have long been studying the thalamus, which sits deep in the brain near the brain stem, to learn what role it plays in sleep, waking, consciousness and alertness. But this research, in which targeted electrical stimulation was applied to a specific area, narrowed the search down further than ever before. The electrodes used in the study were more tailored to the shape of the brain structures they were designed to work on, and the electrical stimulation was designed to mimic the activity of a normal, waking brain.

    The central lateral thalamus is found deep in the center of the brain, close to the brain stem

    The central lateral thalamus is found deep in the center of the brain, close to the brain stem AxelBoldt/Wikimedia Commons

    "We found that when we stimulated this tiny little brain area, we could wake the animals up and reinstate all the neural activity that you'd normally see in the cortex during wakefulness," says senior author and assistant professor Yuri Saalmann. "They acted just as they would if they were awake. When we switched off the stimulation, the animals went straight back to being unconscious."

    The researchers hope this discovery might be able to help people with "disorders of consciousness" – for example, it might be possible to bring people out of comas with consciousness-starting devices, or give narcolepsy sufferers the ability to self-stimulate when they're falling asleep at an inopportune time.

    What's more, anesthetists could use these findings to potentially keep tabs on whether patients are properly under, and when they might be starting to wake up, avoiding some rare but traumatic operating theater experiences. You've also got to wonder if there's a cure for insomnia in there somewhere, or the ability to switch off and sleep through a long plane flight. Time will tell.

    The study was published in the journal Neuron.

    Source: Cell Press via Science Daily

    By Loz Blain

     

    A Guide to How the Brain Works

    If the human body was compared to a machine, the brain would be the computerized system that receives input and controls what all the other parts do. In comparison to other animals, the human brain is small, yet often much more complex. Even with larger brain sizes, most animals do not have the complexity levels that the human brain does. Although the brain can be divided into multiple sections, they all function as one whole. All areas rely on the other areas to perform both complicated and simple tasks, as well as voluntary and involuntary tasks.


    Basic Characteristics

    The average brain weighs between 2.8 and three pounds and is about 15 centimeters long. It has hundreds of wrinkles and folds on the surface, compacted into an oval shape. The brain is covered by layers of membrane called the meninges and is encased by the skull.


    Although this seemingly mushy mass of folds might appear simplistic, it is quite complex. With this oval mound of tissue, there are billions of neurons, dendrites, and axons with trillions of connecting synapses. The brain also has glands and other smaller structures, divided into 3 main sections- the cerebellum, cerebrum, and brain stem.

     



    Cerebrum

    The cerebrum is the top section of the brain, and it is divided into two hemispheres, sometimes called the left and right brains. Both the hemispheres manage the opposite side of the body, and four lobes are contained within these two hemispheres, duplicated for each hemisphere. The cerebrum has two layers called white and gray matter, denoting the inner and outer layers, respectively. The gray matter is the cerebral cortex, while the white matter is called the cerebral medulla.


    It is in this section of the brain where planning and organizing, intelligence, and motor functions primarily occur. The processing and understanding of language occur here as well. Each of the four lobes has its own purpose yet work together to handle the tasks controlled by this area of the brain.


    Frontal Lobes

    In comparison to the other three, the frontal lobe is much larger. Located at the front of the brain, this lobe is responsible for several important things. Essentially, it is where information is processed into physical movement. Although the frontal lobes of both hemispheres overlap in their functions, the right and left frontal lobes do have a few different functions.


    The right frontal lobe tends to have more involvement in distinguishing specific aspects of communication, including distinguishing between negative and positive facial expressions. This lobe is also believed to distinguish certain auditory cues in speech, such as tone and emotional values in a person’s voice. Studies have also shown that the right side of the frontal lobe has more electrical activity during the expression of negative emotions. In contrast, the left frontal lobe predominantly handles language related movements, such as body language and physical emotional expression.


    One thing the frontal lobe controls is motor function, and this lobe also controls speech, reasoning, and problem-solving. Emotions and memory are managed by the frontal lobe, and in addition, eye and skeletal movements, judgment, and personality are handled here as well.


    Movement tasks are processed by a portion of the frontal lobe called the motor cortex. The motor cortex is divided into three areas- the primary motor cortex (M1), the premotor cortex, and the supplementary motor area. Controlling most of the movement, the primary motor cortex is responsible for the force, speed, and direction of voluntary movements. The premotor cortex determines which muscles should be used for movement, while the supplementary motor area manages the coordination of simultaneous smaller movements required to perform larger movements.


    Parietal Lobes

    Located near the middle of the brain, the parietal lobe has the primary function of managing sensory information. Pain, taste, and touch sensations are processed in this lobe, and in addition, spatial orientation, writing, and some aspects of speech are also managed by the parietal lobe. Although most sensory information processing is spread between other lobes, the parietal lobe is the main controlling lobe.


    In addition to sensory processing, the parietal lobe is responsible for visuospatial navigating and proprioception through the posterior parietal cortex. It can also help distinguish the number of objects in a visual field and coordination of attention, managed primarily by the superior parietal lobule. Known as Geschwind's territory, the inferior parietal lobule aids in processing language and facial expressions.


    Temporal Lobes

    Located below the other lobes, the temporal lobes manage processing for sensory and auditory functions, speech related tasks, and memory storage. The temporal lobes also control facial recognition and emotional responses. Within the temporal lobes, there are a few key areas- Wernicke’s Area and the amygdala- that help with functions. The Wernicke’s Area assists in processing words and interpreting speech, and the amygdala assists in processing memories and emotions by receiving sensory information from areas in the cerebral cortex including the thalamus.

     



    Occipital Lobes

    Located near the back section of the brain, the occipital lobe primary handles vision related tasks. All information relayed by the eyes is processed in this lobe, including the ability to read. The occipital lobe also works to send information about images such as the shape, size, and color and it also aids in spatial recognition tasks that include assessing the depth and distance of objects.


    Cerebellum

    The lower portion of the brain is called the cerebellum, and its main duties include controlling balance and coordination. The cerebellum has a role in movement, but only in the sense of making movements more fluid. Generally, the cerebellum helps more with fine motor skills, which includes actions that require practice. It comprises about 10 percent of the brain’s weight but contains more than half of its neurons.


    As with the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum also has folds that contain gray and white matter, and the folds are much more compact and smaller than others. It has three lobes that have the primary responsibility of receiving information from specific areas of the body. The anterior lobe is responsible for receiving and processing information sent by the spinal cord. Information from the cerebral cortex and brainstem are received by the posterior lobe. The flocculonodular lobe processes information sent by the vestibular nerve.


    Brain Stem

    Important functions, such as heartbeat and breathing, are controlled by structures in the brain stem. Sitting just below the limbic system, the brain stem connects to the spinal cord. Ultimately, most information processed by the brain is sent to the neural pathways of the spinal cord. The pons, midbrain, and medulla oblongata are structures found in the brain stem.


    Functioning with dual duty, the midbrain processes visual and auditory information, while also controlling movement. The pons is the largest section of the brain stem and joins part of the cerebral cortex to the cerebellum and medulla oblongata. It plays a large role in breathing and sleeping. Acting as the main control center for the lungs and heart, the medulla oblongata regulates blood pressure, breathing, swallowing, and heart rate.


    Working Together

    All aspects of the brain work together through the nervous system. Each region relies on the others, working to maintain homeostasis. Neurons, dendrites, and axons run throughout the entire brain in a system of neural pathways. Information is sent through these pathways in the form of electrical impulses. There are two parts of the nervous system, each responsible for different things.


    Information is received from the body and sent through a network of pathways to the appropriate processing center or lobe. The information is then sent across other areas if needed, to process the appropriate response. At this point, the response information is then sent back through the pathways to the muscles and organs required for an activity. For example, if something hot is touched, this information is sent from the nerves in the hand to the brain. The sensation is processed by the lobes that handle sensory information and then the response to jerk away from the heat is sent back to the hand to avoid more pain. All this back and forth transmission is done in a matter of seconds.


    As the main control center, the central nervous system (CNS) contains the spinal cord and brain, while the peripheral nervous system (PNS) connects the CNS to the rest of the body via nerve pathways. All sensory information is received and processed in the brain and then dispersed to the appropriate neural pathways around the body. Each system is completely dependent on the other for the body to function properly.


    As technology advances, medical professionals can learn more about the brain and the process behind how it works. Through imaging tests, for example, doctors can view electrical activities occurring within the brain and distinguish between damaged and healthy tissue. Understanding the brain and its complex functions allow an insight into many problems, including several psychological and processing disorders, and it can also provide an insight into the basic functioning and learning process. The human brain might be small in comparison, but it is one of the most complex organs in the body.

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