One of the normal ARCs (age relate changes) affecting our cognition is the loss of control over our attention—the ability to focus on a single task and tune out distracting thoughts. Apparently, the circuitry gradually breaks down between two regions of the brain that had worked together to allow a person to attend to a single task and tune out other thoughts. And it too (like so many other) starts in one’s 40’s.
There was a time when I could focus intensely on a task without consciously having to prevent intrusion of other thoughts. And at that time I also could count on my hands or my body to automatically take care of routine tasks or activities while my mind was free to go wherever it would, or needed to. It all happened so naturally that of course I took it for granted.
Now, a half century later, neither is true. The most basic tasks my hands and body once could do without thought, now constantly require purposeful awareness and decision making. I’ve had to unlearn automaticity with them. And at the same time my mind now keeps merrily flitting around to things that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. It’s a double whammy.
I tried reading about the underlying cognitive mechanisms creating this change, but most of the research was in discipline-specific language that was well beyond my ability to understand. However, in my reading I did learn that neurons and connections in the brain do keep on growing in some areas of the brain, even as we age. (But apparently not involved in attention/distraction). Now that‘s both encouraging and discouraging.
I decided to experiment using some of the strategies I’d developed in dealing with other changed capacities. Repeated use of the mantra “NOSE & TOES!” (thought loudly if that is possible), had been improving my balance when I was involved in turning maneuvers. And “CENTER YOURSELF!” worked if I remembered to think it when:
rising from sitting to standing or any bending-over activity and before taking the first step
lifting or carrying objects of any weight
I was about to be hugged.
My new anti-distraction mantras are: “FOCUS! FOCUS!” and “FINISH IT!” I’ve only been using these newly created mantras for a week or so, but they seem to be making a difference. The tasks where I’ve been testing them are in the kitchen in meal preparation, clean up and all the other sundry tasks that pop up in this area throughout the day. And somehow, both my brain and I seem to be rather proud of the results. Life feels a bit more orderly and certainly the kitchen looks neater.
So far, I’m fortunate that I seem to be able to focus when I am writing or reading. (Here it is my ARCed short term memory that is the culprit creating havoc.)
Somehow my philosophy of “Sufficient unto the day. . .” continues to stand me in good stead. We’re engaging and managing. It is just more complex and challenging.