I’m not a good barometer of what is considered “good” concentration since I have always “multi-tasked” my whole life. (I call it multi-tasking, others might refer to it as attention deficit disorder. I suppose I could split the difference and call it multi-tasking disorder.)
I read about people, young to old, having trouble concentrating during this pandemic. Some lack motivation, and those who need to concentrate and complete tasks that require sustained intellectual engagement because of studies or jobs are having trouble.
FIRST: Emotions CAN take over our minds – A question of the amygdala
Emotions can warn us and activate our bodies system for defense. The amygdala responds rapidly to anything that may be threatening. It responds to possible threats, so we are ready to act-to run or to fight, if the threat is real. It is faster than our prefrontal cortex, which can analyze if the threat is real or just looks like a threat.
Think of seeing a coiled shape on the ground. The amygdala immediately responds and starts to set in motion your systems to run or fight. A bit slower, the prefrontal cortex looks closely-is it a snake? Or just a coiled rope? The prefrontal cortex can shut down the emergency response that the amygdala has started if it is safe. But if it isn’t safe, if it was a snake, your body is already preparing, This helps you cope with danger and survive.
In people, the amygdala responds to social cues. People are very sensitive to the emotional charge of situations and people they encounter. Neuroscience shows we are unable to ignore the emotional charge we sense.
SECOND: Attention/focus/concentration are limited resources.
The cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in 2002, was among the first to propose that attention is a limited cognitive resource and that some cognitive processes require more attention than others. This is particularly the case for activities that require conscious control, like reading or writing.
These activities use working memory, which is limited. The brain circuits for working memory are in the prefrontal cortex.
Researchers have thought that the emotions being processed in the amygdala do not affect the attention resources of working memory. But new evidence indicates the circuits that connect the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are important in determining what is relevant and what is not for whatever activity is currently being undertaken.
THIRD: Emotional stimuli interfere with tasks that require working memory.
For tasks that need a lot of cognitive resources, there is more interference. The more someone needs to concentrate, the more easily they are distracted. Research by Michael Eysenck supports this idea. He and his colleagues showed that people who are anxious prefer to focus on the perceived threat, rather than the task they are performing. This can include internal thoughts or external images. This is also true of worry. Both anxiety and worry use up attention and cognitive resources that are needed for working memory. This decreases performance, especially if a task is complicated.