What Stephen Covey taught us about the neuroscience of focus

I was saddened to hear of the death of Stephen Covey yesterday. He was a truly inspirational figure who studied human behaviour and drew up a set of simple instructions for human happiness – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

One of these habits was –‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’

Covey proposed that happiness in life depends not only in having a focus or goal (i.e. the main thing) but in having the discipline to stay focused on that goal (i.e. keeping the main thing the main thing). He contended that one reason why people fail to achieve their full potential was in not staying focused on that goal.

Where in the brain do we create focus and how can we strengthen it?

There are two types of focused attention in two separate regions of the brain. The prefrontal lobes are in charge of goal setting and willful concentration; if you are studying for a test or writing a novel, the impetus and the orders come from there. But if there is a sudden, riveting event – the attack of a tiger or the scream of a child – it is the parietal lobes behind each ear that are activated. Neuroscientists have learned that these two brain regions sustain concentration when neurons emit pulses of electricity at specific rates – faster frequencies for the automatic processing of the parietal cortex, slower frequencies for the deliberate, intentional work of the prefrontal.

Furthermore, studies of seasoned meditators – Tibetan Buddhist monks show that regular meditation – i.e. paying attention on purpose – generates brain wave patterns which synchronise neuronal firing in both the frontal and parietal lobes – a phenomenon which is thought to underlie the sustained concentration involved in focused attention i.e. in keeping the main thing the main thing.  In fact, the ability of mediation to strengthen the connection between these two key brain regions involved in sustained concentration explains the ability of seasoned meditators to stay calm and focused.

These finding on attention in the brain may also radically alter our understanding of attention disorders and provide new opportunities to learn how brains pay attention in real world settings and acquire healthy habits to stay focused and prevent distraction.