We all have different interests. You, for example, may be incredibly interested and fascinated by space and the future, whereas your best friend may be more inclined to research historical events and where we as a species have come from. It’s perfectly normal, and to say you’re not interested in the same subjects as your friends, in no way makes you ‘wrong’. But have you ever wondered why you’re naturally able to place more of your attention and focus – and even have a greater emotional response – to topics and hobbies that you are interested in?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it all comes down to what happens in your brain, and the signals it sends to your body, to give you that heightened emotional response. More specifically, it’s all to do with the release of dopamine. Dopamine is what is known as a neurotransmitter – or perhaps even more specifically, according to Andrew Huberman at least, a neuromodulator – and, as we likely already know, is referred to as a chemical of pleasure, because it feels fantastic when it’s released by the brain.
Certain drugs, for example, are known to dramatically increase the levels of dopamine released by the brain, making us feel like we’re on top of the world, or have increased levels of confidence, when we take them. Although, if we take too much of these drugs, which in turn releases even greater quantities of dopamine, we can go past the point of pleasure and start to suffer from heightened anxiety. This can also lead to a disconnection from reality, where we question what is or isn’t real. However, the use of drugs also inhibits your body’s natural ability to produce dopamine, so the levels eventually become depleted, which can make you feel like you have no energy – otherwise known as the ‘come down.’
But, back to the topic at hand, why is it that we feel an increased focus when we’re interested in something? Andrew Huberman, Ph.D, a neuroscience professor at Stanford, has the answer. During a recent episode of his podcast, Andrew speaks about people who have ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) – informing us as to why people with ADHD can focus very intensely on things they enjoy and are curious – but adds that the same principles can be applied to those who don’t have it.
How to increase your mental focus
He adds that “enjoyment and curiosity” are psychological terms, or rather “the way we describe our human experience.” But, “from a neurobiological perspective, they have a very clear identity and signature, and that’s dopamine.”
Furthering the specificity of what dopamine does in our brain on top of the above, Andrew says dopamine is a neuromodulator, which “changes the activity of the circuits in the brain, such that certain circuits are more active than others.”
“In particular, dopamine creates a heightened state of focus. It tends to contract our visual world and it tends to make us pay attention to things that are outside and beyond the confides of our skin.”
“Dopamine is largely responsible for our ability and drive to pursue information in our outside world.”
He expands on this by saying that dopamine “turns on signals in our brain that narrow our visual focus and our auditory focus.” By contrast, when our brain isn’t releasing dopamine, we are less perceptive to specific things happening in our outside world. We are susceptible to a variety of different senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, for example, but “we only perceive some of them, because [we’re] only paying attention to some of them.”
As a real world example, wherever you’re reading this article, you’re exposed to an entire world of sensory information. You’re feeling clothes on your skin, you’re taking in words by sight, and there might be external sounds around you. But you’re only paying attention to some of these, which (hopefully) will be the taking in of words via your sight. As Andrew says, “the ones you’re paying attention to, are your perceptions.” Your body will still be sensing the other senses, but you’re not perceiving them.
Applying this to people with ADHD, Andrew adds that while it may be true that they can have difficulty paying attention to things, they also have the ability to have a “hyper focus” on things they really enjoy. “People with ADHD have the capacity to attend, but they can’t engage that attention for things that they don’t really, really want to do.” And it’s this ideology that can be applied even to those without ADHD, i.e., if we’re not interested in something, we’re not going to give it our attention, but vice versa, if we are interested in something, our attention will become incredibly focused.
So, the secret to increasing your mental focus? Find subjects, people or hobbies that you’re genuinely interested in. And how do you know what you are or aren’t interested in? You’ll notice a difference in the way your brain responds to the various stimuli, either with sincere pleasure, or a complete lack of.