The demands of focused attention put special emphasis on vitamins B and D.
More than three decades into the information age and we’re all still struggling to keep up with the flow of the stuff. According to the World Economic Forum, the digitalverse alone is closing in on generating 463 exabytes of data per day—a lot. Every 60 seconds, 188 million emails are sent as Google is fielding 3.8 million search queries and 88,000 people—none of them Donald J. Trump—are tweeting something.
The single greatest personal resource for even attempting to keep up is that cognitive process called attention, the ability to direct and keep mental focus on one aspect of information or task attainment while ignoring everything else clamoring for a cut of our consciousness. And while the incredible shrinking attention span appears to be more myth than reality—you do have more brain power than a goldfish—attention does have its limits.
Attention is effortful, and how much we have at any one time depends on what we’re doing—watching a movie on Netflix or learning algebra—and why. Our goals contribute significantly to the ability to pay attention. Still, the more mundane the task, or insufficiently rewarding, the less attention we muster.
What adds to the challenge of maintaining mental focus is that distraction is often flung at us or no more than a colorful hyperlink away. Then, of course, there is all the inner distraction we’re prone to, the often-negative chatter in our heads commanding rumination about past or possible events.
A sense of being overwhelmed leaves people generally unwilling to grapple with new ideas. Information overload is not an ideal state for shimmying up the learning curve on any topic, no matter how novel.
Although many parts of the brain contribute to mental focus, it is ultimately the job of the prefrontal cortex to select which stimuli to engage with and allocate attention. Three neurotransmitters play significant roles in attention. Acetylcholine helps distinguish signal from “noise” so that you orient to relevant information. Dopamine supports motivation and deciding whether a task is worth the effort. Norepinephrine, a chemical of alertness, promotes mental vigilance.
Attention operates in tandem with working memory, another finite cognitive capacity, one that is highly predictive of intelligence. Attentional control governs what gets priority in working memory and the precision with which you can recall it. But an ounce of distraction, even a short burst, can dislodge everything in working memory—say hello to mind-blanking—no matter how highly prioritized.
Not to worry—attention isn’t all serious business. It’s what magicians and illusionists manipulate to ply their magic. Nonetheless, concentration is critical for success. At anything.
To function optimally, attention, like most other high-falutin’ operations of the brain, needs all those things your mother told you to get—nutrition, exercise, sleep, and rest. If it doesn’t get the right fuel, the brain will never function at its best.
A number of nutrients play particularly important roles. Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in cold-water fish, are a major component of neuronal membranes and influence the efficiency of all brain cell operations and signaling. They also affect the dopamine system and play an outsize role in the development and maintenance of neurons that release and respond to dopamine.
Vitamins are also integral. Folate, otherwise known as B9, is another general do-gooder. It is responsible for the development of the nervous system, starting early in embryogenesis. Folate also contributes to the formation of myelin, the protective sheath of neurons that speeds conduction of nerve signals.
The vitamin plays a continuing role in brain function throughout the lifespan. Production of dopamine and norepinephrine depends on it. Folate also regulates gene expression, turning genes on and off in the ever-busy brain, and it is essential for nerve cell regeneration and repair.
Studies show that diet supplementation with folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, improves cognitive function by reducing levels of inflammation. Folate is inextricably linked to vitamin B12, without which it can’t be produced. But in fact, all its B brethren are essential for every aspect of brain function, including neurotransmitter production, because their operations are all interrelated, especially for brain energy metabolism.
Studies show that the Bs collaborate with vitamin D to enhance cognitive performance. While vitamin D is widely thought of as the sunshine vitamin—it is indeed produced in the body when skin is exposed to sunshine—it really merits rebranding as a brain vitamin.
The role vitamin D plays in memory and cognition is a still unfolding story. Studies reveal it contributes to the creation of scaffolding for neurons—so-called perineuronal nets—fortifying their connections and underwriting that all-around sign of brain well-being, neuronal plasticity.
Bites of Attention
- Older adults are less distracted by negative information than younger adults. Their attention is biased to positive information before they even have a chance to evaluate it.
- Multitasking is a myth; what’s really involved is rapid switching of attention, at the cost of accuracy and speed in tasks and jeopardizing of working memory.
- Paradoxically, attention seems to work by prioritizing selection of distractors—and then speedily rejecting them.
- There may be one best way for the brain to stay on task, but because many brain areas contribute to mental focus, there are many ways sustained attention can be disrupted.
- Imaging studies of attentional lapses show them as highly localized areas of sleep-like slow-wave activity in the awake brain.
- Researchers are exploring attention training away from threatening stimuli as an adjunctive therapy to CBT in children with anxiety.
- Studies show that Vitamin D supplements used as adjunctive therapy give children with ADHD a small boost in their attention and behavior scores.
Many thanks to Hara Estroff Marano and Psychology Today for this outstanding research and article.