The Ability To Concentrate
Expressing oneself intelligently requires the synergy of many forces. One must harness one’s mental energy into an idea; compare and combine that idea with other available ideas; translate the results into an intelligible form of communication; and express that communication. Most people are able to do all these steps fairly well individually. The problem is holding each step together in one’s mind long enough to use it in the next step and come to a coherent end-product. In other words, it is not brainpower that is lacking; it is the ability to concentrate.
If you ask the average intelligent person to divide 6 into 125,809 in their mind, they simply won’t be able to sustain a mental image long enough to produce the answer. However, when given paper, they could tell you the answer in seconds. They have no trouble performing the separate arithmetical calculations; it’s visualizing the entire process piece by piece and remembering each calculation long enough to apply it to the following one that is the issue. Inevitably, thoughts disperse.
Contrary to what you may have absorbed from the media, difficulty focusing is not limited to those with ADHD. It affects all people. If we were always able to attain a high level of concentration, our true intelligence would come out and all of our latent ideas – the ones we know we have but can just never seem to put into words – could finally be exploited. The difference between those who get As in schools and those who get Cs, between those who gets 1100s on their SATs and those who get 1600s, between those who discuss insights with their friends and those who write great books, easily comes down to the ability to concentrate.
What kind of a solution exists? Again, popular wisdom would have you believe that drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are the only known antidotes to this mental blurriness. But I believe that there is another, more natural solution. It stems from the fact that difficulty concentrating usually comes in two forms: simple interference by outside thoughts and a more subtle attrition due to background stress. In the first case, which is common to all people, outside thoughts like what you’re having for dinner or a recent spat with a significant other, replace the subject matter you’re currently studying. In the second case, which becomes more common the older you get, your ability to focus is slowly worn away by stresses that you don’t even realize you have. That unpaid telephone bill, or the fact that you don’t have enough romance in your life, or worries about global warming, distract you from the material in front of you.
The problem with drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, to the extent they do improve concentration, is that they do not address this second factor, background stress. Rather, they simply dull your mind to all but the material in front of you, which can be helpful, but also comes with undesirable side effects like a general lack of enthusiasm. Even if they were helpful, these drugs are marketed for people with ADHD and thus are not legally obtainable by the average person who could use a boost in focus.
If we could somehow remove this background stress, concentration could be improved and many more people would magically “become” intelligent. Other than years of therapy, what could possibly dispose of these deep-seated worries? I’ve found that the answer lies in immersing oneself in unreal worlds. Imagination, which can come from reading books, writing, or simply dreaming up fantastic situations, is a valuable tool in improving concentration. By conjuring up fanciful worlds like you used to do as a child, you isolate yourself from real world worries, placing yourself on a different plane.
Reading fictional books, for instance, immerses you in a place far away from the one in which you physically dwell. This actually relaxes you. Have you ever wondered why reading tends to put you to sleep? Well, I’m sure there’s some scientific reason relating to the soporific side effects of visually scanning words on paper, but I believe that the real reason is that reading takes you out of the real world. Stress keeps you awake; fantasy relaxes you, causing you to drift off into your subconscious. So if you’re going to try reading as a means of improving your concentration, remember not to read a newspaper. The real world events contained in a newspaper only increase background stress. The key is relaxation.
Again we find that children, whose lives contain so much more imagination than those of adults, have the advantage. To the extent that mentally healthy children have difficulty focusing, I’d say that outside interference of ideas – thoughts of frolicking around in the playground – are the sole cause. So if we can present children with interesting subject matter, giving them good reason to concentrate on what’s in front of them, we can fully utilize their ability to concentrate.
And for the adults, try taking a lesson from the children. If you have a presentation or an exam tomorrow, don’t cram and worry yourself even further; immerse yourself in fantasy. Separate yourself from real-world worries. Suddenly, you may just find yourself with a lot more clarity.
Evan Bailyn is a serial entrepreneur, search engine and social media expert, celebrated author and child advocate. His company, First Page Sage, is a leader in search engine optimization and social media marketing - vastly increasing business for its clients through high SEO rankings, targeted Facebook advertising and viral videos. Evan is also the founder of the Evan Bailyn Foundation, a foundation dedicated to teaching emotional awareness to children and adults.