Attention, awareness, focus and concentration

February 10, 2013 Post Comment Uncategorised

I was watching an episode in Professor Brian Cox’s latest series Wonders of Life and moved to the edge of my seat as he began to talk about the senses, sensual data, and in particular – OUR senses.

Fascinating as this section was, I was hoping he would make reference, in detail, to our Reticular Activating System (or RAS). This is our brain’s perceptive filter, where we ‘let in’ the data we want and ‘ignore’ what we don’t want or feel the need to retain. I say “let in” here with a pinch of salted licence because in fact it is already “in our heads” anyway! It’s just that we don’t begin to perceive it until the RAS has screened it for our conscious awareness.

Over the years I’ve worked, particularly with sportspersons, on the ability to concentrate and how the RAS can really help us bring a level of control to our manipulation of sensual input. And there’s an interesting co-relation here also with a number of hypnotic phenomena – analgaesia, amnesia and hallucination in particular – where perceptual distortions are taking place.

My recent and ongoing work with players from my county’s Ladies’ Cricket squad (coupled with watching Brian Cox) has brought me back to some of the experimental practical work I’ve done over the years in applying elements of the amazing powers available to us from within the functions of the RAS.

Watch the ball!

The old adage of “watch the ball (target, opponent, etc)” is a very simple coaching instruction, and yet how often do we get given the FULL instruction – the necessary detail that will really help us? “Watch the ball” is only the start and yet we might believe that just following “watch the ball” will give us everything we need to know about the ball and how we might strike, chest, punch, catch or kick it.

There is more to watching than meets the eye! There is …
How are we watching?
For how Long are we watching?
What level of Distractions are happening? and so on and so forth.

Ok you could say these are all things that come under the umbrella labelled Concentration – but then do we ever get to learn how to concentrate? Did any teacher in school ever show you how to concentrate? You knew what was meant by pay attention, and you knew in particular how to make teacher think you were paying attention! We all have our own particular definition of what concentration is and (rather like “watch the ball”) these all lie somewhere on a sliding scale of quality.

How, and for how long are we watching?

I once sat a group of sixteen young district level cricketers in a circle, with a cricket ball in the middle. I gave them a couple of minutes to study the ball and then tell me as much as they could about that ball. I got back a whole range of answers from the very obvious – it’s round and red – to the detailed. I then got them to each handle the ball in turn, with their eyes closed, and then tell me what more they’d discovered about the ball by describing what they could feel.

This was an information gathering excercise about the ball, the kind of information useful to a bowler. The better the bowler, the more useful the information is – and the better the bowler, the better the speed and volume of information gathering. In this exercise the RAS was being directed at characteristics of one object, and to be fair to the sixteen young players, the feedback was all bits of raw data – because that’s what I’d asked for. If we’d done the exercise again with another ball, this time I’d have asked for “what do you notice that’s different?” And this time the RAS would have been filtering for differences.

Whether it is noticing sameness, differences or patterns; seeing familiar faces in a crowd, hearing our name spoken in the bubbub of a crowded room or noticing subtle nuances in the tastes of wines – our RAS here is very much ‘working to order’, doing our bidding. However, I digress, so let’s return to the RAS with regards to visual matters.

The level of distractions

Reduce the level of distractions and the quality of the processing of visual data goes up sharply. One of the things you can do is to direct the RAS to not process other incoming sensual data, such as sound distractions – draw your auditory attention inwards or even off. It can be done by allowing yourself to become more visually absorbed – rather like the group of sixteen players had been – and with practice you can allow that absorption to muffle and shut out external sounds.

However – the biggest distraction to the working order of the RAS is our own internal dialogue, the demands of which seem to drain away the processing power necessary for good sensual filtering. Think of what was happening to your sporting performance when there was ‘mental baggage’ around to clutter up your clarity of mind. Your concentration and focus was indistinct and fuzzy, your decision making slow, unclear and flawed, your levels of physicality and athleticism degraded quicker.
If there was a way to leave that mental baggage in the changing room, or back at home, then we’d all do it wouldn’t we?

If you subject yourself to a lot of self-talk, or find yourself turning over a lot of thoughts in your mind – notice what happens to that when you are drinking and, particularly, eating. Does it rest and then come back?
I’ve noticed, both with clients and myself, that when the tongue is engaged then internal dialogue is diminished. There is an ideomotor response associated with internal dialogue and major tongue activity (like chewing gum for instance) inhibits it. The whole thing about over-active internal dialogue is this – it isn’t just with us in a sporting context. It’s with us throughout our daily lives, and for us to ‘kick it into touch’ in our sport we need to deal with it everywhere.
“How do I do that – it’s part of who I am,” you might say.
It isn’t part of who you are, it’s just a habit you’ve learnt and become familiar with – and there are many ways of dealing with it, starting with telling that inner voice to “shut up!”

Trying hard to concentrate

It is said that to concentrate for long periods of time – especially in a sporting context – is an extremely difficult thing to do.
“You should have uptime and downtime, ergo developing an ability to switch on and switch off would be a really useful skill to master.”
It is well chronicled that distractions such as pauses, intervals and other breaks in play often lead to dramatic changes in concentration levels for players. In these instances we might all think that those players had lost the means of switching concentration back on.
And yet when we are absolutely and totally absorbed in something – something that requires our concentration (whatever that may be) – we can be in uptime for hours. We can be totally focussed in something to such an extent that time seems to stand still, and those faculties that seem to deplete so quickly when we’re putting effort into concentrating, are as fresh at the end of our activity as they are at the beginning.
So, where the powers of concentration and mental fatigue are concerned, perhaps the answer is this – we merely need to allow ourselves to become totally absorbed in the play and in the action.

It is easy to see, on reflection of course, that this is just another way of saying
“Play in the Now”.


So did Brian Cox talk about the RAS with regard to the human senses? Sadly no, although he did go in another direction that was equally interesting, engaging and absorbing. The key thing for me was that the connection was made with my own discoveries.

We often make conscious directions and tunings of our RAS, although often just when we are performing an act of concentration. And even then – rather like the length, breadth and depth of quality “watching the ball” – we need to be aware there are degrees of focussing we can apply to our RAS as well. Familiarity and practice are necessary to maintaining and honing ALL our skills – and that includes the ones that go to make up what we call concentration.

Reference links to other articles

The RAS and ‘Visualisation in action’:-

The RAS and ‘How good is your dead aim?’

The RAS and ‘Opening the senses’