What Brain Structures Contribute to Concentration?
Neuroscience tells us that, not just one, but different parts of the brain are responsible for mental focus and concentration. The most important ones are the following:
Reticular activating system (RAS)
The RAS consists of scattered nerve areas in the brainstem controlling wakefulness. It is normally regulated by the circadian rhythm—more commonly known as the "body clock"—which relies on the brain's perception of day-night cycles.
Ever wondered about what gives rise to jet lag? You guessed it. It's the RAS simply adjusting to time zone movements. You cannot fully focus when you're sleepy. So you need to jumpstart your RAS to concentrate on a task.
This structure is vital to learning, memory and adaptation. It helps you identify the objects you perceive and recall what you did in the past when you first encountered them.
For example, we did not all drive smoothly when we were first starting to learn the skill. We weren't all experts at getting past humps, sharp curves and difficult parking. Yet, we kept learning until these challenges rarely bothered us anymore.
Practice makes perfect, and it is the hippocampus's job to make it so. Stronger hippocampal connections help you concentrate more on your goals and not on the distractions.
Sensory processing centers
These centers are found on the sides of the cerebrum, the uppermost part of the brain. They are your microprocessors, and their job is to help you understand your environment and plan your next move.
For example, you have a report that is due in a few hours, but you ran out of printer ink. You go to the store and realize that there are a lot of different kinds. How long does it take you to decide which one to buy? Your microprocessors' analytical efficiency is an essential component of mental focus.
Frontal and prefrontal lobes
These two sit atop the cerebrum and are in charge of most cognitive functions, such as attention, judgment, long-term planning, motivation and problem-solving. They decide what to pay attention to, for how long and why. Anything that slows down or disrupts their activities can break mental focus.
For instance, the Rubik’s cube is one of the world’s toughest puzzles. Some people can figure it out within minutes, but others can take much longer. Then there are those who would never even try because of the lack of tangible rewards.
People who are easily distracted may be low on neurotransmitters—or brain chemicals—in these lobes. Luckily, there are natural fixes for such deficiencies.
The astrocytes are cells surrounding brain tissue. They regulate its supply of blood, oxygen and nutrients. Recent evidence shows that the astrocytes also play a significant role in learning and adaptation.
So these are the structures that control mental focus. The next section will enlighten you on what can boost and slow them down.
What Are the Different Factors Affecting Mental Focus?
Numerous elements affect concentration, but we'll discuss only the most important ones here.
This is the primary function of the RAS. It is mainly regulated by our body clock. A good amount of quality sleep will energize the RAS. Stimulants perk it up while sedatives can switch it off. Most medical conditions can inhibit the RAS, causing sleep problems and daytime drowsiness.
Omega-3 oils help modulate the RAS’ activity. For example, a diet rich in the omega-3 oil DHA is known to improve sleep quality and quantity among young children. Likewise, DHA supplementation in the elderly has been found to improve both their sleeping habits and cognitive function.
Glucose, a tiny carbohydrate molecule, is the brain's main fuel, hence the expression "sugar high." Fasting decreases blood glucose levels, and so hungry people may experience lightheadedness and difficulty concentrating. On the other hand, too much glucose can also slow the brain down.
Eating healthy can minimize sugar fluctuations. Additionally, curcumin, a substance extracted from the natural spice turmeric, can protect against the harmful effects of excess glucose in the brain. Vitamin C has a similar effect.
About 60% of the human body is water. It cools down the tissues, eliminates waste and speeds up brain processes. We lose water through our sweat, breath and body wastes. Breastfeeding mothers lose more of it in milk.
Too little or too much water can slow down mental performance. Your brain needs just the right amount to function optimally.
Many electrolytes are vital to normal bodily function. They are charged particles that can enter the brain anytime through the blood. Their levels can increase or decrease, depending on your water consumption, eating habits, physical activity, medication intake, etc.
Sodium and calcium are the most important electrolytes impacting mental performance, although others may also have indirect effects. Balanced sodium and calcium levels are good for the brain, while too much or too little can have harmful consequences.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that influence various mental functions. For brain health, we always want balanced amounts of these chemicals. The neurotransmitters crucial to mental performance are the following:
Acetylcholine is a chemical that is distributed throughout the body and is responsible for moving the muscles, controlling the heartbeat, digesting food, etc. In the brain, it sharpens mental focus by controlling the impulses within the RAS, sensory processing centers and the hippocampus.
Acetylcholine imbalance causes sleep problems, weakens the memory and impairs mental focus. Incidentally, this neurotransmitter is derived from alpha-glycerophosphocholine, which is enhanced by the intake of legumes. Alpha-glycerophosphocholine is more effective in generating acetylcholine than similar molecules in the diet because the brain's fatty layers easily absorb it.
This neurotransmitter is responsible for reward-motivated behavior, pleasure, and attention, exerting its cognitive effects in the frontal and prefrontal lobes. Dopamine deficiency results in poor mental focus and a lack of motivation. Elevated levels lead to mental and psychological imbalance.
GABA is widely distributed in the brain and generally reduces its activity. GABA action can put you to sleep and slow down mental performance.
Glutamate is mostly responsible for learning and memory. It occurs in large amounts in the hippocampus and cerebrum, lesser in other parts of the nervous system.
Excess glutamate activity is harmful to the brain. However, increasing curcumin, vitamin C and DHA in the diet can prevent this neurotransmitter’s toxic effects.
Norepinephrine's structure and effects are similar to those of caffeine. Abundant levels of this neurotransmitter are found in the RAS and prefrontal lobe. In the RAS, it increases wakefulness. In the prefrontal lobe, it enhances the attention span and elevates the mood. Norepinephrine is found in smaller quantities in other areas of the brain where it speeds up reaction time.
Depressed norepinephrine levels thus lead to drowsiness, confusion, distractibility, low moods and slow reaction time.
Curcumin improves mood by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels. Studies show that people who regularly take curcumin have sharper cognition. Vitamin C is another nutrient that helps elevate mood by enhancing norepinephrine production.
Good eating habits are essential to mental and psychological health. Busy people tend to neglect this aspect of self-care, not realizing that its positive effects go beyond the physical.
Studies have consistently shown that proper nutrition heals both the body and mind. It improves mood among diabetics and problem-solving skills among children and adolescents. High-quality diets promote neurotransmitter balance. Meanwhile, fast food and junk food, which make up the standard American diet, can reverse these effects.
With good nutrition, you get just the right amount of vitamins and electrolytes to power up your brain. You also get good sources of carbohydrates, fats, and amino acids, which are the brain's building blocks. All these help sharpen your mental focus.
Environmental pollutants are toxic to all body cells, and various types can penetrate the brain and cause injury. Constant, tiny exposures will take their toll and manifest as cognitive dysfunction, mood swings or both.
Car emissions, cigarette smoke and industrial waste are the most common sources. They contain substances that can make you ill, such as heavy metals, free radicals and carbon gases. Additionally, poor sanitation can cause infections, allergies and other diseases.
This term means "formation of new nerve cells." Brain neurogenesis mostly occurs when babies are still inside the womb. Age significantly slows down the process, to the point that damaged brain cells become nearly impossible to replace.
However, recent studies show that some neurogenesis regularly takes place in the hippocampus, which is presumed to be linked to its role in learning and adaptation. Constant stimulation enhances neurogenesis and mental focus. Regular intake of curcumin can also induce neurogenesis and improve memory.
Stress and inflammation
Stress is a manifestation of an imbalance. In the mind, it can be from thoughts that get your neurotransmitters and emotions out of whack. In the body, it can trigger inflammation.
Prolonged inflammation leads to immune imbalance, releasing oxygen free radicals that are toxic to the body. Oxygen free radicals produce body pains, weakness and more disease. They can also kill off cells, including those of the brain. All these combined can reduce mental efficiency.
Vitamin C and curcumin have brain-protective antioxidant properties. Trans-resveratrol, which is naturally found in grapes, can also capture oxygen free radicals that are toxic to the brain.
Medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes can also induce inflammation, make people feel weaker and reduce their ability to focus. They should be properly managed to protect brain health.
The blood distributes nutrients and oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain. Optimum nutrient and oxygen levels enhance mental function, whereas low levels do the opposite. Higher intake of trans-resveratrol and vitamin C can also improve brain circulation and mental performance.
Keeping brain tissue healthy ensures optimum mental performance. A balanced diet provides building blocks and protective antioxidants to the brain, promoting tissue health. Additionally, good eating habits increase alpha-glycerophosphocholine, uridine, and omega-3 oils, which also support the brain structures. The omega-3 oil DHA is crucial to brain development from fetal life to early adulthood.
Conversely, brain strain may occur after a sports injury, car crash or severe illness. Brain injury can diminish the ability to focus if left without regeneration and dietary changes.
"Neuroplasticity" is a fancy term for the brain's ability to learn and adapt. It involves the regeneration or re-wiring of neural connections. Constant stimulation strengthens neural connections, whereas lack of use causes them to be "pruned out."
Neuroplasticity is best exhibited when physical therapists work their magic on their patients. By exposure to increasingly challenging drills, many individuals heal and get back to their previous functional level. The brain is a plastic organ, molded by stimulation and the nutrients that you feed it.
BDNF is a molecule in the brain that promotes neuroplasticity. Studies show that BDNF protects against brain aging. Its secretion is enhanced by exercise and increased consumption of omega-3 oils and curcumin.
Learning about these factors can help you understand why some mental focus fixes work while others don't.
Ways to Improve Mental Focus and Concentration
Without further ado, below are our recommendations to help enhance your mental performance:
Sleep well, and sleep enough.
Healthy sleep habits maintain good circadian patterns, keeping the RAS awake at the right hours.
How long is enough? It depends on one's age. The recommended sleep length for adolescents is 8-10 hours. Younger children may sleep longer. Adults must get 7-9 hours of sleep, but advanced age may involuntarily shorten sleep.
Some sleep hygiene tips include:
- Having dinner early—a bloated tummy is uncomfortable and likely to keep you awake
- Turning off everything that emits light, including electronic gadgets—lights in the dark interfere with our body clock
- Training yourself to sleep at the same time every night—this will be hard at first, but it will get easier as your plastic brain adjusts
- Take a hot shower before bedtime and sleep in a cool room—the temperature drop soothes the senses and lulls the RAS to sleep
Over-the-counter drugs, like some anti-allergy and cough medicines, can cause drowsiness. Worse, the feeling may linger for a day or two among sensitive people. If you are allergy-prone, check your medicine's label to make sure that it is not sedating. Eliminating these substances from your system helps improve your alertness and focus.
Some drugs essential to treatment can cause drowsiness. Seizure medicines, for example, increase GABA potency, that's why they're effective. However, they can also put patients to sleep. We would never advise these individuals to skip their medications, as safer methods can improve their concentration. Even then, always talk to your doctor before considering any alternative methods of boosting your concentration.
Watch what you eat
A balanced diet ensures adequate supplies of brain structure building blocks and neurotransmitter ingredients. If you want to maintain a sharp focus, feed your brain what it needs.
What comprises a healthy diet? The HHS explains what it is in its dietary guidelines. Essentially, a variety of greens, legumes, grains, fruits, protein sources and healthy oils make up a good diet.
Feed your brain what it needs.
A balanced diet promotes cardiovascular health. But did you know that you could tweak a heart-healthy diet to make it brain-healthy, too?
Studies show that brain-healthy diets improve mental concentration and delay age-associated cognitive decline. One example of a brain-healthy regimen is the MIND diet, which combines a wide variety of nutrient-packed foods that help build and protect important brain structures.
For more information about brain-healthy diets, check out our brain diet guide.
Avoid foods that can devastate your neurons.
Substances present abundantly in the standard American diet can diminish brain function both in the short- and long-term.
- Simple sugars and refined carbohydrates give you a temporary energy boost, but the ensuing crash can make you drowsy and lose concentration. Chronic excess leads to type 2 diabetes mellitus, which destroys neurons and puts people at risk for stroke.
- Saturated fats, trans- fats and cholesterol promote inflammation and eventually clog the blood vessels. These events reduce blood flow to the brain, impairing alertness and focus. They also put people at risk for stroke.
- Sodium in table salt is associated with increased hypertension risk. Hypertension causes narrowing of the blood vessels, reducing oxygen in the brain. Uncontrolled hypertension can also lead to a mental condition known as "vascular dementia."
You can read about the recommended daily allowances for these substances from our brain diet guide.
Boost your concentration with brain supplements.
Success-driven individuals may sometimes feel that they're not getting as many nutrients in their diet. Even after trying other natural remedies, they may still feel stressed or energy-drained after a day's work.
Luckily for us, science has made it possible to produce supplements that can safely and naturally invigorate the brain. Brain Assist is one such example, as it has vitamin C, curcumin, alpha-glycerophosphocholine, omega-3 oils, trans-resveratrol, and uridine, all of which are powerful mental focus boosters because they help fill in nutritional gaps.
Drink enough water.
Adequate hydration helps ensure electrolyte level stability and alertness.
What is the right amount of water, though? The traditional advice is 8 glasses a day, but people may need more or less than this, depending on their physical activity and other factors.
For temperate countries like the US, adequate daily levels are 3.7 liters for men and 2.7 liters for women. However, you can increase or decrease your intake depending on your need. Indicators of sufficient hydration are having light yellow urine and not feeling thirsty.
Demanding lifestyles can take a lot from you, mentally and emotionally. Social media and the news just seem to make things worse.
Challenges are easier to solve when your mind is calm and focused. Relax and let go of psychological clutter. Learn to delegate tasks. Disconnect from all media for a while.
You can also try natural de-stressing fixes. Some activities that you can do anytime anywhere are deep breathing, stretching and listening to good music. To take it one step further, make time for yoga, tai-chi or meditation.
Minimize your toxic exposures.
Reducing contact with environmental pollutants will protect your cells from poisonous damage. It will refresh you physically, emotionally and mentally. There are tons you can do to avoid pollution's health effects, starting with the following:
- Avoid or quit smoking--nicotine may be a stimulant, but the hazards of cigarette smoke far outweigh this benefit
- Walk or ride a bicycle or public vehicle when taking a trip--to help lessen auto emissions. Walking and bicycling's physical and mental benefits are widely documented.
- Avoid burning trash, paper, plastic and other materials--burning worsens air pollution, which can trigger asthmatic attacks, unleash carcinogens and other poisons, cause eye and throat irritation, etc.
- Plant trees--they help us by using up carbon dioxide and producing oxygen
- Visit the countryside more often if you live in the city--the countryside is much quieter and cleaner. It not only keeps you away from environmental toxins, but it can also alleviate stress.
- Clean your surroundings--get rid of germs and harmful substances that can make you sick and lose your focus.
- Proper nutrition and hydration--healthy food has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances that protect you from environmental poisons. Drinking adequate amounts of water helps you quickly eliminate waste. Supplement your diet with the toxin-combating nutrients curcumin, trans-resveratrol, omega-3 oils, uridine and vitamin C for added protection.
- Limit your alcohol intake, and preferably, choose the brain-friendly kind. Alcohol can mess up your coordination, alertness and focus. Habitual heavy drinking can lead to permanent brain damage, manifesting as disorientation, forgetfulness, hallucinations, incoordination and visual problems. Alcohol withdrawal can lead to deadly seizures. The recommended alcohol limit for women is one drink a day, and for men, it is two. And choose red wine, because it is rich in the brain protectant trans-resveratrol.
Take your medications as ordered.
Manage your medical condition well by maintaining a good diet, drinking enough water and taking your medications as scheduled. Your mental function improves when you have your condition under control.
Stay physically active.
Exercise optimizes brain blood flow. It has also been shown to enhance neurogenesis, neuroplasticity and astrocyte activity. Increased hippocampal volume and improved memory were observed in a group of elderly women taking regular dance classes for 18 months. Various other studies also prove that exercise boosts memory and mental concentration.
If you're already working out regularly, you may simply continue your exercise regimen. But if you’re not currently on one, you may try the following joint-friendly routines:
Pilates: Do twice-weekly, hour-long workouts consisting of 10 minutes of warm-up exercises, 35 minutes of Pilates and 15 minutes of cool-down exercises.
Tai chi or brisk walking: Done for 30 minutes, 5 times a week. Spend 10 minutes each on warm-up and cool-down exercises.
Moderately paced swimming: Done for 45-60 minutes, 2-5 times a week. Again, spend 10 minutes each on warm-up and cool-down exercises.
These routines help enhance mental function and delay cognitive decline among healthy adults. However, make
Exercise your brain.
Finally, brain games are time-tested tools for sharpening the mind and delaying brain aging.
Board games, card games, puzzles and brain training apps like Luminosity and Nintendo Brain Age are all associated with cognitive enhancement across different age groups. Evidence shows that long-term engagement in these activities positively impacts reasoning skills, verbal skills, executive functioning, memory, attention and processing speed.
Additionally, video gaming has been linked to cognitive and emotional well-being among healthy adults.
So choose a fun brain game to play everyday to keep brain fog away.
While these recommendations are supported by scientific evidence, they may not work the same way for everyone. However, these approaches do not have any negative side effects, so you can safely try any of them to see which one works best. If the problem persists despite these remedies, let your doctor know just to make sure that nothing is seriously wrong.