Charmaine Au-Yeung with permission for Varsity

In exam term, just taking a moment away from the relentless demands of revision in order to take a breath can often seem like a luxury. Here, I try to unpack some of the science behind concentration, in the hope of perhaps unlocking a few secrets that will help to engage that laser focus while minimising mental strain.

On top of our ever more hectic schedules, we are all increasingly challenged by an overwhelming array of stimuli coming at us from all quarters to compete for our attention, . Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many of us struggle to maintain concentration on the task at hand, whether it be making it through a day of lectures or even just reading a book.

We’re hardwired to lose our concentration.

The key to concentration lies in the brain’s ability to identify and direct attention towards particularly task-relevant sensory stimuli, whilst filtering out less relevant background information.

“The occasional daydream might not be so harmful to your Tripos performance after all”

Two regions in the brain control attention: crucially, there’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the region of the brain that we consciously choose to activate when deciding to read, paint a picture or study for an exam. There’s also a region called the parietal cortex that induces a subconscious, autonomous response. It is a survival tool, keeping us safe from imminent threats.

Humans are evolutionarily hardwired to have an attention span that can be broken easily as a safety measure. In this way, our ancestors were constantly alert to any changes in the background, and always prepared to suddenly redirect attention towards a new danger. Essential as this may have been, now it’s just another obstacle that lies between you, a completed essay and a satisfied supervisor.

Daydreaming isn’t so bad after all!

Although daydreaming may seem like another barrier between us and productivity, we can speculate that allowing the mind to wander has benefits. It presents the rare opportunity to escape from the busy world around us and focus on our internal thoughts, which not only boosts well-being but provides a unique creative outlet that heavily structured days don’t allow. Then, when the attention comes back to the present, we can feel not only uplifted and rested but perhaps also newly inspired by novel ideas arising from the free exploration of our subconscious mind.

Daydreaming changes our focus from the task at hand to an internal, subconscious exploration of thoughts and ideas. We don’t know why the mind wanders, but we are particularly prone to it when our focus is shifted away from the outside world, such as during periods of rest and when performing tasks on ‘autopilot’.

Organic chemist Fredrich Kekulé claimed to have come up with the idea that benzene was a ringed structure due to a daydream where he saw a snake eating its tail. The occasional daydream might not be so harmful to your Tripos performance after all...

Use Noise-Cancelling Headphones!

One way is to try and minimise the amount of background neuronal activity that arises from irrelevant external stimuli, which generates less work for the brain in trying to identify what is important. It may seem obvious, but for this reason, noise-cancelling headphones or ‘white noise’ tracks can help concentration a great deal as they block out activity around you.

What’s the bigger picture?

Work on task motivation by spending some time reminding yourself of why you’re doing it, including how the outcome can fit into a bigger picture.

Motivating yourself like this can have two effects: firstly, the perception of a reward for the task drives the release of dopamine, which brings about positive feelings that help sustain focus.


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Secondly, there is a neurological response to feelings of engagement and passion for the task that activates a bundle of neurons in the brainstem which boosts wakefulness. This, in turn, improves our concentration and increases the ability of the cortex to focus attention. Simply enjoying a task may be enough to activate both of these mechanisms, supercharging your ability to stay involved and be effective.

So when it’s a Friday afternoon and the thought of working is unappealing, to say the least, remove the distractions and take a step back to allow your mind to refresh. Come back with a new, positive outlook that lets your brain do its thing. Who knows, you may even come up with the next big discovery in your subject!