How Looking Up From Your Phone Helps Improve Your Focus

Give your brain a break and look around.

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Do you ever find yourself at your desk staring at your screen but unable to focus? Or rereading the same line over and over again because you’re distracted? If so, you’re probably suffering from a case of brain overload. But don’t fret, because the solution may be simpler than you think, as Zakiya Whatley and Titi Shodiya, Ph.D.s and hosts of Dope Labs Podcast, explain in the video above.

In short: The human brain has the incredible ability to relieve itself from overstimulation and give itself a break. And one of the fastest ways to do that is to look up from your phone. After that, your brain will take over and handle the rest. Yes, it’s really that simple!

Still not convinced? OK, here’s how it works. The human brain has two main types of attention: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous attention is intentional focus — like when you’re trying to write an essay or read a serious book. Exogenous attention is unintentional and stimulus-driven, like an outside distraction — think a barking dog or honking horns. 

Our natural reaction to these types of outside distraction is to try to tune them out. A process run by a part of the brain region called the anterior insula filters incoming stimuli so you can pay attention to what’s important. But this process is taxing and can become overwhelmed by a prolonged onslaught of distractions, making the anterior insula less effective at its job and leaving you more distracted in the long run.

Remember that feeling we described earlier, of reading the same sentence over and over again? That’s the anterior insula signaling that it needs a break, but the correct kind of break: not signing out of work email and immediately logging into Instagram or Facebook on your phone — that doesn’t count as downtime, at least not for your brain. A true break for your brain requires averting your gaze from your screens and looking up — and out into the real world. And this can actually prime your brain for improved focus.

Even better if you head outdoors! According to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), allowing your brain time to “zone out” in a natural setting, like on a stroll in the park, prompts a period of “soft fascination.” Whatley describes this state as “a nice, low-focus experience that helps us replenish the cognitive resources needed for deep focus… like an incubation period for your brain that helps limber you up for some deep thinking.”

So the next time you find yourself unable to focus or easily distracted, give yourself a break — a real one — and keep your gaze upward. Your brain will be grateful, and will thank you with a stronger attention span.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


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