Attention is the ability to process information while ignoring distractions. It can take several forms. For example, it can be ‘focused’ (responding to a specific stimulus), ‘sustained’ (over a long period of time) or ‘selective’ (ability to ignore surrounding distractors). Being able to hold attention is vital for success and for us to thrive in the world. It is also a mental muscle; and like any muscle, if well exercised, can be strengthened. However, all too often we are negligent of how important our attention really is. We normally fall back and rely on external factors such as something new, novel or exciting, to govern or ‘grab our attention’, rather than seeing this as something we can have ownership over, control or should seek to improve.
Our age of digital devices and social media has diminished our attention span. So, with shorter ‘attention span’ we perform poorly at work or school, due to distractibility and reduced ability to complete tasks efficiently. A lack of attention affects our mental wellbeing. In children, the incidence of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is rising resulting in restless, trouble concentrating and poorer achievement. This worrying trend has been recognised, and has led to the emergence of techniques, such as mindfulness, to enable us to live in the present.
Brain changes during mindfulness
Professor Richard Davidson, an expert on emotion and the brain, revealed how the increasingly popular mindfulness meditation practices can improve emotional regulation, reduce anxiety and foster a positive mood. In his research paper entitled “Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli” (https://centerhealthyminds.org/assets/files-publications/Kral2018NeuroImage.pdf), he uses brain imaging techniques to reveal that mindfulness training alters the neural circuitry leading to better emotion regulation. It was proposed that those who practiced mindfulness, even for relatively short periods of time, had reduced amygdala activity; a part of the brain that is thought to drives the so-called “fight or flight” response.
Techniques to improve attention
More surprising evidence is provided by methods that seek to specifically train attention. In one such technique, a mindfulness video game called ‘Tenacity’ involves players tapping on an iPad screen with each out-breath. While they play and concentrate on counting the number of breaths, the game has shown to improve frontal brain connectivity leading to improved selective attention (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-53393-x).
Such studies provide interesting insights into the brains placidity and how one can actively prolong the attention span and so potentially become more productive. Like any neural circuitry, if we repeatedly practice a particular activity, in our case, attention, then it may be possible to shape our brains for the better and form positive habits that could bring balance back into our lives. Furthermore, this may positively impact on the way we handle ourselves, our emotions and our relationships with others. So other than taking a course on mindfulness, is there anything we can do today to enhance our attention and become more productive?
The Salah (prayer)
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah was in the mosque when a man came and started praying, afterwards he came to meet the Messenger. The Prophet greeted him and told him, go back, and pray again, for you have not offered the prayer. He went and prayed like before and came to the prophet. He said, go back and repeat your prayer, for you have not offered the prayer. This happened three times. Finally, the man asked: By Him Who hast sent you with Truth, whatever more can i do than this, please teach me.
He said: When you get up to pray, recite takbir, and then recite whatever you can from the Qur’an, then bow down and remain quietly in that position, then raise yourself and stand erect; then prostrate yourself and remain quietly there; then raise yourself and sit quietly ; and do that throughout all your prayers. (Muslim, Kitab al-salat).
A common question asked by Muslims is how one can develop khushoo’ (concentration) in Salah. In his YouTube reminder video entitled, ‘Tips to Improve Concentration in Prayer (Salah)’ Mufti Menk’s number one suggestion is to contemplate what is being recited through understanding the meaning of the Salah
Other strategies one can adopt include coming early for prayer, praying in congregation, to take time and not to rush, to seek refuge in Allah from the Shaytaan and know that Allah swt is ever watchful and responds to your prayer.
Developing concentration in Salah earns you great reward for the afterlife, and enhances your attention span. We have been blessed with 5 opportunities a day to screen out irrelevant stimulation and improve our ability to focus. By repeatedly practicing this, our brain’s neural networks that influence attention can be strengthened. This will have a knock-on effect allowing us to arguably engage and focus on other tasks is our lives more effectively and for longer periods of time. This is just another way your daily Salah can lead you to achieving a more productive life.