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It used to take me two hours to play a game of chess. Now I play games that take weeks to finish. The thing is, I think I used to play better before. See, I now play a version in which I only need to make one move a day.

But whereas before I would focus on the board for hours and zone out, now I get a notification on my phone and make my move almost immediately. And that’s to my detriment.

So why don’t I take my time to examine my moves more carefully? The truth is, there is an increasingly well-known phenomenon at play here: It looks like we are all losing our ability to focus.

A study by Microsoft in 2016 found that the attention span of test subjects had fallen to eight seconds from 12 seconds in 2000. Four seconds may not seem like much but I think it’s the difference between understanding or missing ideas in a conversation.

For example, if you say, “It was so cold yesterday, how can global warming be true?”, it has more impact than, “It was so cold yesterday because a high-pressure system in Siberia drove cold air down to Malaysia via the South China Sea”.

For some people, I can’t give the long answer. I have to say “There’s a wind from Siberia”. And then they may ask, “Siberia and Malaysia so close, meh?”

There is value in focusing on the task at hand. Dr Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin in the United States has done studies on how the brain reacts to external stimuli. For example, getting a subject to press a button as soon as he/she hears a buzz.

Now, when the researchers looked at brain signals during this experiment, they observed that electrical oscillations of a certain frequency, mainly in the prefrontal cortex, respond to the external stimuli.

But it’s harder for these oscillations to respond (the phrase he uses is “phase locked”) when the mind is not at rest. However, if the subject meditates, then the phase locking is more obvious. Being able to focus improves your ability to understand and respond to external stimuli.

So what can we do about this erosion of our powers of concentration? A flippant answer would be to say “stop using technology”. But becoming a Luddite is a step too far back I think.

Instead, the clue is in what I discussed above. It is possible to look at brain scans and see a difference between happy and sad brains. What Dr Davidson’s work seems to show is that meditation – specifically, practising mindfulness – is more likely to lead to happy brains.

A simple exercise they recommend to cultivate mindfulness is to spend three to four minutes focusing on breathing. Try to pay attention to the feeling of the air going in, through, and out your nose. If your mind wanders, just go back to the breathing. Focus.

Contradictheory offers lesson on how to focus

Go on, try it – deeeeeep breath in, then slowly let it out. Can you feel the calm? Photo: 123rf.com

Go ahead. Try 30 deep, deliberate breaths. I’ll be here when you get back. It’s what I do sometimes when I need to get to sleep, or when I need to calm down. I didn’t realise there was a scientific basis to it.

I’m not the only one who thinks there is benefit to this. When students at one particular American primary school have disciplinary problems, they are sent not to the headmaster’s office but to a Mindful Moment Room where they are taught to meditate. The Robert W. Coleman Elementary School testifies that children who go into the room leave it less rowdy, and this has significantly reduced disciplinary problems.

My research while writing this article led me to a book by Daniel Goldman called Focus. Quite unwittingly, I had reproduced a lot of the fine work he has in that book. But one thing he says there that I haven’t mentioned in this article is that, sometimes, not focusing on something is a good thing.

In particular, he writes about the “bottom-up” mind, where when we deliberately stop thinking about a problem, our minds are actually still working on it in the background. Think about when you come up with something novel in the shower.

It seems that when the mind “wanders”, the executive system of the prefrontal cortex (which is important for keeping focused on tasks) is also active. Goldman quotes a study where volunteers were given a task to find original uses for an object. When their minds were allowed to wander, they gave 40% more original answers.

So I guess to improve my chess, I need to take my time to focus properly. And then look away from the board. And remember to breathe.


Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.

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