Concentration is our ability to focus on a given task. There are four interrelated components that define concentration. These include width, direction, intensity, and duration. When we look at the width of attention, it can vary from a broad perspective, where you process a large amount of information coming from various sources to a narrow one, where only a limited amount of information can capture your attention. There are instances where a broad focus of attention is appropriate, while at other times you need to shift your focus of attention to only a few thoughts. It is important to understand when each type is going to be most useful and how to shift between them when necessary. When you’ve mastered the ability to shift from broad to narrow concentration and back again, and the capacity to maintain the correct focus based on the demands of the activity, you’ll be able to avoid irrelevant thoughts since they can negatively affect both your decision-making and your reactions. An example of a broad perspective is when you are driving and taking in everything around you. This is appropriate when weather and traffic conditions are good. There tends to be little to be concerned with. But when suddenly there is an accident in front of you need to shift your focus to a narrower one. You need to focus on specifically what is happening in front of you, so you remain safe.
The second component has to do with the direction of your focus. There are occasions when an internal focus of attention is necessary. This means that you selectively filter out external events. At other times, an external focus of concentration may be more appropriate since you must continue to focus on the changing events that are occurring around you in real time. One example is when you are doing something challenging. I used to do Warrior Dash each summer. I would say that when I was running and approaching the next obstacle I was using external focus. I was assessing what was in front of me and what would be needed to accomplish the obstacle. If the obstacle was difficult then I went to an internal focus. I would be using mantras to help keep me calm and focused on the specific task in front of me.
Concentration can also vary in terms of its intensity – from being weak to being intense. Finally, concentration can vary in terms of its duration. Here, concentration varies from brief to sustained periods of time. It’s important to understand that these components of concentration are mutually exclusive in that it’s not possible to concentrate both broadly and narrowly at the same time, nor can you concentrate internally and externally at the same time. Likewise, the more intense your concentration is, the shorter will be the length of time you can maintain focus at that intensity before mental fatigue sets in. An example I think of is surgery. A surgeon can be intensely focused for short periods of time. In between these periods he needs to step back mentally and reassess the situation. The intense concentration comes in short bursts.
Under relaxed conditions we possess greater mental flexibility – we are better at shifting amongst these four different components of attention. But under conditions of pressure or when we allow emotional stress to increase, we tend to rely on our own particular concentration bias. This may become a disadvantage if your bias is inappropriate for the particular demands of the situation at that time.
Until next time….
Change. Discover. Transform.
Carla Carter, Ed.D., LCPC, CMPC, EMDR Certified

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