I am about to be zapped in the head with an electromagnet, once a second, for eight minutes. I fidget, trying to get comfortable in a huge black chair with jointed metal arms that stand between me and the door. I feel faintly ridiculous wearing a tight headband with what looks like a coat hook on the top. “All you need to do is relax,” says Mike Esterman, the researcher about to zap me. That’s easy for him to say – he’s holding the magnet.
“Willpower is like a muscle. I’m a big believer in that.”
I’ve come to the Boston Attention and Learning Lab in the US to try and train my brain to focus better. Esterman and fellow cognitive neuroscientist Joe DeGutis have spent nearly seven years working on a training programme to help wandering minds stay “in the zone”.
So far, their methods seem to be particularly promising for enhancing focus in US army veterans with attention problems linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and brain injuries, as well as people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But what I want to know is, can the mind-wandering of the average procrastinating person be improved? And if so, can they do it to me? Please?
A month earlier, when I had first contacted DeGutis to ask this question, he wasn’t convinced that they could help. “It is typically quite difficult to improve ‘normal’ functioning into the above average or superior range, despite what some brain training companies suggest,” he said. “If you don’t have poor enough performance, training may not be effective.”
But one look at my results on their online “continuous concentration” test, and he changed his mind. I scored 53 – more than 20 points below average (try it yourself at the end of this article). And, after a few more online tests and questionnaires sent by email, the cold hard truth hit my inbox. “Considering all your results, it’s very clear that you have issues with attention and distractibility both in the lab and in daily life.” He won’t be drawn on what this might mean for my brain, but he does say there’s “room for improvement” and invites me to Boston for a course of intensive training and brain stimulation.
I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Among people who know me well I have a reputation for not focusing on anything for very long. Years ago my brother came up with the perfect name for a task that started well but got abandoned halfway, with the accompanying mess left everywhere. “Ah,” he’d say. “That looks like a ‘Caroline job’.” An old friend had a more poetic version, calling me “butterfly brain”, because of the way I constantly flit from one thing to the next. I like this one better.
Hope for change
Fortunately for me – and for anyone who finds their attention being hijacked by Facebook, daydreaming or a sudden urge to put the kettle on – there is good reason to think that improvement is possible. A decade or so of neuroscience has shown beyond doubt that the adult brain remains malleable throughout life. The circuits we use most often become stronger and more efficient, and the brain areas they connect become larger, while the ones we don’t use, shrink and fade away. Study after study has shown that your brain can be changed for the better.
But – and it’s a big but – to change anything in the brain you have to focus your attention on it. So what if your problem is with the very act of focusing? How do you concentrate for long enough to even start to improve your attention span?
I’m not the only one asking this question. Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly interested in our ability to knuckle down, precisely because so many of us find it hard. An estimated 80% of students and 25% of adults admit to being chronic procrastinators, and with the internet and smartphones offering an endless number of distractions from what we should be doing, it may be getting worse.