the SCIENCE

Common Misconceptions About Focus

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus, debunks three common myths. 

Flickr.com/Raúl Hernández González

What is focus, and why is it important to talk about focus now? Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence, sat down with MassLive.com to talk about his new book, Focus—excerpted in Mindful's December 2013 issue—and some of the lessons he learned while doing his research. (You can read the full interview transcript on MassLive.com.) Goleman also talked about some of the most common misconceptions about focus among people in the US. 

1. We're passive victims to what distracts us

One is that … we're passive victims, when in fact we can take steps to create a time and place where we aren’t invaded by these intrusions. That we can't do anything to strengthen our ability to concentrate—I think those are damaging assumptions. We can train attention, we can bulk it up the same way we bulk up a muscle. Mindfulness is attention training. If you put your mind on one thing, like your breath, the mind wanders 50 percent of time. The key is do you notice that it wandered off? Can you be aware of what's going on in your mind? If you can, then the key is to bring it (your attention) back to where you want it to be. Every time you make that in your mind, you strengthen the circuitry. It's the same as going to gym and doing a rep of an exercise. You strengthen that muscle a bit more. We can have more mental fitness if we work at it.

2. We equate distraction with ADHD 

Right now it's kind of sad. The drug companies have persuaded educators and parents that there's a huge epidemic of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and the answer is to medicate kids. But I just read a study of drugs for ADHD that show they work well for about a year, but by the third year they don’t help at all. I was stunned by that. But, on the other hand, we're finding training kids in attention actually helps them concentrate —and, by the way, it costs nothing, and we can do it in the schools.

3. Focus is too tough to teach

I think we should be doing what I saw in this school in New York's Spanish Harlem. It was a very impoverished neighborhood, and these 7-year-olds in second grade did this exercise where they get a stuffed animal, put it on their belly, watch it rise when they breathe and fall when they breathe out. And every time it goes up they count 1, 2, 3, and every time it falls they count 1, 2, 3. That is concentration, and the exercise has double payoff. Not only are kids better able to pay attention, but they're calmer and they're focused, which is the optimal state to learn. Since we can help kids get in that state, why don’t we do it and why don’t we do it kindergarten through 12th grade in a way that’s appropriate for that age group?

Read the full interview here. On Mindful.org, you can watch Mindful's interview with Daniel Goleman, where he discusses how training the brain can change the brain and what we lose when we squander face-to-face contact and get lost in a sea of distractions. And if you're looking for more ways to develop focus, you can try this 9-minute sensory focus practice from Goleman's audiobook, Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence.