We all know what it feels like to lack focus and attention when you really want to concentrate on something. Where your attention is pulled in any given moment isn’t always a function of what you intend to do but rather a neurochemical cascade that’s happening behind the scenes.
The neurochemistry of focus and concentration involves a complex system of moving parts and biochemicals.
In this article, we’ll talk about the different parts of the brain involved in focus and attention and which biochemicals are most prevalent in these systems.
The Complex Attentional System Of Your Brain
While many neurological processes happen in specific areas of the brain, your ability to focus and concentrate actually occurs in a vast network instead of one area.
While the underlying mechanism of focus is still not completely understood, researchers have gathered that there are a few systems working together to create focus and concentration. These include the alerting network, the orienting network, and the executive network.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3413263/
This system focuses on the brainstem arousal systems, along with the right hemisphere systems in relation to sustained vigilance. In other words, sustained attention. As opposed to a resting state where your attention is relaxed, when you are alert your brain is awake and paying attention to what is in front of you.
This system is focused on your ability to prioritize sensory input. Research suggests that these behaviors stem from your brain’s frontal and posterior areas, such as the frontal eye fields (FEF). It’s believed that the posterior area of your brain is involved in processing the information that comes in.
This system allows your consciousness to be captured by a target in your awareness. It’s hypothesized that the areas in the brain that wake up with the executive network include the midline cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). With the executive network, you enter a conscious state, where the detection of something in your environment (physical or mental) captures your awareness in a specific way.
Top-down Attention and Bottom-up Attention Systems
In addition to these different neurological networks, there are two primary times of focus that are recognized, top-down attention and bottom-up attention.
- Top-down attention refers to your voluntary allocation of attention to certain objects; this is willful attention given consciously. This type of attention is referred to as endogenous attention or sustained attention.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1073858413494269
- Bottom-up attention refers to stimuli that attract your attention. This is also known as transient attention or exogenous attention.https://jov.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2194099
When considering focus and attention, it’s the top-down (endogenous attention) systems at play.
Now that we’ve covered the attention system in general let’s take a deeper look at some of the biochemicals involved in your ability to focus and concentrate.
Biochemicals Involved In Concentration and Focus
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that functions in both the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. However, its primary role takes place in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the branch of your nervous system that contracts smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels, increases bodily secretions, slows heart rate, and more generally, pulls you into a relaxation response.
Research shows that acetylcholine may play a significant role in your ability to focus, especially when other sensory stimuli are also pulling your attention.
From a neurological perspective, when you focus your attention on something, the electrical activity in your neocortex changes. Instead of neurons firing in sync with one another, they start to fire out of sync, allowing individual neurons to respond to sensory input in different ways.
The acetylcholine network (also called your cholinergic system) acts as a master switch in your brain, enabling your brain to identify which sensory information is most important to pay attention to. It, therefore, helps you focus your attention or put a spotlight on one piece of information or another.
In other words, the acetylcholine network helps you to filter out distractions.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181227102057.htm
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in a number of processes in your brain. Most people recognize dopamine as part of the reward center in the brain. Research into addiction underlines the role that dopamine plays in feelings of wanting or craving.
But dopamine is actually involved in various aspects of cognitive function, including your ability to pay attention and focus. Specifically, research shows that dopamine is involved in your ability to be flexible with your attention. Cognitive flexibility allows you to shift your focus from one thing to another as you feel called. This is part of the executive system in your brain.
In this way, dopamine has more to do with your behavior around attention and focus as opposed to simply helping you focus on one thing.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3817373/
A huge benefit to this system is that it allows you to move on from one thought process to another instead of staying stuck in a loop. For instance, if you’re trying to gather information on a subject, the dopamine-derived system will allow you to push past information that is not relevant to what you need so you can continue to focus on your goal.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3817373/
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that’s activated primarily when you’re in a sympathetic nervous system response, also known as the “fight or flight response.” Together with adrenaline, norepinephrine increases heart rate, blood pressure and increases blood sugar levels to give you more energy when a stressful trigger takes place.
As an arousing chemical, norepinephrine is also involved in alertness and wakefulness. When a stressful trigger hits (perceived or real), you certainly don’t want to be too relaxed or sleepy.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606453/
The ability of norepinephrine to promote arousal supports the mental vigilance that comes with focus and concentration. It also is tied into your cholinergic system, which was described earlier in the section about acetylcholine.
When norepinephrine is active, you feel more alert, attentive, and vigilant.
Furthermore, the interplay between norepinephrine and dopamine has been the subject of investigation in conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4879059
FAQ About Focus and Attention
What Are The Best Focus-Enhancing Synthetic Nootropics?
Synthetic nootropics are made in a laboratory and have a powerful impact on cognition. Some of the best synthetic nootropics for focus and concentration include vinpocetine, Noopept, oxiracetam, and aniracetam. The best nootropic for you will depend on your individual needs; take this quiz to find your formula.
Which Natural Supplements Help With Attention And Focus?
Some of the most well-known supplements for focus and attention include l-theanine, ginkgo biloba, caffeine, phosphatidylserine, fish oil, and bacopa monnieri. However, the best supplement choice for you will depend on the reason you’re having trouble focusing and paying attention.
How Do You Enhance Focus and Concentration Naturally?
Some natural ways to enhance your ability to focus include meditation techniques like mindfulness, getting a good night’s sleep, managing your stress, making time for exercise, getting out in nature, playing brain training games, and giving your brain a rest.
How Can I Optimize My Ability to Focus At Home?
Many people are trying to find ways to work from home without constantly feeling distracted. Some tips to keep your focus in a work-from-home environment include; limiting distractions like phones or TVs, using headphones to listen to relaxing music, setting boundaries with family or housemates to create personal space.