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 'Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task.’ Photograph: Alamy. Courtesy of theguardian.com

'Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task.’ Photograph: Alamy. Courtesy of theguardian.com


If a camera is out of focus, it will produce an image that is not clearly defined, with necessary details obscured. In other words, information that the photographer could have conveyed is lost.

Our brains work like a camera. We take in images, information, and other stimuli and process it for further use. The dictionary defines the word “focus”: the state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition. And in geometry: one of the fixed points from which the distances to any point of a given curve, such as an ellipse or parabola, are connected by a linear relation. Interestingly, the Latin origin for the geometric application of the word means, “domestic hearth’.

Our brains are our domestic hearth. This is where the home fires of our existence burn.

Today the word focus comes up in regard to our ever-increasing need to find respite from the tsunami of information overload that we experience in our online lives. I often hear people complain about their overstuffed email inboxes. That conjures images in my mind of an actual mailbox with letters, advertising, and packages spilling out onto the ground only to be lost in the litter of our lives.

Thankfully, the Guardian ran an article this week about the problem of our modern-day information overload and how we can manage it and learn to focus our daily lives on taking better care of our brain which is getting the brunt of all this. If we do not allow ourselves the time to give our brains the chance to focus and clearly define each happening in our day, then our brains will not function at an optimum level. Just think, if everyone paid attention to the health of their brain, then how much better off the world would be.

Here is an excerpt:

Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, “People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.


Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. By contrast, staying on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum, and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.


The article goes on to discuss a little history on how we used to receive mail once a day. There were merits in this mode of communication. It took  a long time to write a handwritten letter and it took a long time to get a reply. This allowed plenty of time for one’s brain to process the information trail.

However, I am not of the mind that we should go back to the good old days. Modern-day communication tools are opening up myriads of improvements in the way we connect on a global scale. All we have to do is learn the best way to use these new tools without sacrificing our well-being.

You can manage your virtual mailbox just like you manage your mailbox at home. When you get your mail out of the box, the first thing you do is look at the addressee and the sender. If it’s important to you and personal, you’ll open it first. Same thing with our virtual mail. Only difference is that the “mailman” shows up now every minute of the day. Here’s the catch: don’t let it pile up. Check your email regularly but don’t let it interrupt important tasks. And don’t forget your spam box. That’s like the lost and found of email. Once in a while, there’s something in there that got misplaced by the virtual mailman.

The takeaway for me on the article about how our brains process information is this: Focus. Take time to define what you're looking at. Let your brain properly file away information for later use.

Just like a big file cabinet, if you carelessly toss papers into it out of order, it takes hours to find what you need later, and sometimes files can get lost. Don’t let your brain become a broken down old file cabinet. One of the best things I ever learned from my first real job was to never have a box on your desk labeled, “To Be Filed”.

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Cover photo by Kathleen Franks

Background image by Getty Images

© 2014 - 2017 Kathleen Franks