How to fix your limited attention span and worrying habit

Caroline Williams on self-help for people who don’t like self-help

Science journalist Caroline Williams has been left alone in a room, having been asked to spend the next five minutes intensely worrying about something she worries about often: her young son running into the busy road outside her house. She has been told to think about it in as much detail as she can.

Williams is taking part in a training program in Oxford University that attempts to change the way her brain deals with stress. She is a frequent worrier who knows that persistent worry makes you 29 per cent more likely to die of a heart attack and 41 per cent more likely to die of cancer.

Her anxious mind was just one of the things she decided to tackle in her year-long quest to "go beyond brain training and take control of my mind", as detailed in her new book, Override. She was inspired to embark on this journey by the relatively recent discovery of the neuroplasticity of the brain.

“Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of talk about how the brain can change throughout our whole lives,” she says. “It then got translated into, ‘Oh, you must do this brain-training game or puzzle’. And also self-help books started invoking neuroplasticity and saying, ‘Look! You can do anything you like with your brain’. It started quietly grating on me. Can it really be that easy?”

Williams decided to find out. There was “this shopping list of things that I’d come up with that I’d quite like to change about my own brain if I could. So I thought, why not see what the scientists are doing and see if I could make it work for me in real life.”

The list has something for all of us: a limited attention span; poor number skills; a nonexistent sense of direction; and a lifelong worrying habit. She also wanted to explore her own creativity and perception of time. For each, she sets off on one of her book’s many journeys, to Boston and Kansas, Oxford and Gent, to the labs of scientists who are working on these particular areas of the brain.

Skeptical angle

Override, she says,is "self-help for people who don't like self-help". It has a "slightly sceptical journalistic angle rather than a 'this is my view on life and I think you should have this view too'."

Getting to grips with her attention span was an easy first pick. Williams works from home as a freelance journalist with a small child. She is a self-professed “butterfly brain”.

“If you want to change anything about your brain,” she says, “you have to focus your attention on it. And I always thought, well, that’s great. But what if you’re a complete space cadet and you can’t keep your mind on the job for more than five minutes?”

In Boston, Williams sought the assistance of a neuroscientist. Joe DeGutis works with veterans who find it difficult to sustain attention after spending so much time in a state of heightened anxiety. Williams scored well below average in the attention tests. But her results improved vastly after her brain was stimulated with electrical activity, followed by a week of focus training sessions.

Most of us flick absentmindedly between Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, for example. It is about controlling the distraction, she says. "Once you give yourself permission to wander off for a bit, it sort of makes it easier to come back. Whereas before if you're sitting there thinking, 'No, I do not need another cup of tea' and you're fighting it . . . that works less well."

Williams also had a go at meditation, something she was keen to resist. “I thought in the back of my mind for years that mindfulness would be something that I would benefit from. But there was this sort of smug element: anyone who did it a lot just seemed to look annoyingly calm.”

She forced herself to take an eight-week course. “It made me look at what was happening in my body and relate that to thought. When something negative happened, I noticed I was doing this thing I called the Kermit face, which was sort of sucking in my bottom lip.” In fact, made the Kermit face in reaction to many things.

“It took a while to work out that there was an undercurrent that seems to pervade everything, which is, am I doing this right or am I crap – in everything, like even loading the dishwasher?”

This “trained noticing” was a revelation. Her meditation greatly helped her focus, even if she’s slightly annoyed at how effective it is. “Mindfulness is definitely a tool, but the opposite state needs a rebrand.”

Off with the fairies

In a lab in Kansas, Williams had electrodes applied to her brain that made her zone out. “They were interfering with activity in the frontal areas, which you need for focus,” she says. “I felt myself drift off.” She was now in a state she recognised from when she can’t focus on her work and she’s “just a bit off with the fairies”.

According to the data, being “off with the fairies” doubled her creativity. “The number of ideas that I came up with was huge. On the other hand, the ideas that I came up with were not necessarily good ideas. You need to go a bit mindless and let things work out, but you also need those frontal bits to come back on line to be able to evaluate the ideas you’ve come up with.”

In the past, when it came to her anxiety, Williams found little of assistance in self-help books. “All seemed to have the same message, which is, ‘If you think about it logically then there’s nothing to worry about is there?’ Which is fine and true, but I already know that I shouldn’t be freaking out and stressing, so it’s not helpful at all.”

She was relieved to find research being carried out at universities in Oxford and Gent, “where it goes one step before you’ve stressed . . . It sort of goes to the bit before that, where your mind is making decisions for you and the idea that you can then sort of skew those back into a more positive direction.”

Williams discovered that being over-anxious or not comes down to the balance between two of the most powerful circuits in the brain: those relating to danger-spotting and reward-seeking. A skew one way or the other is known as “cognitive bias”: assumptions we don’t know we are making. Williams has a negative bias, owing in some part to the death of her father in a car accident when she was a young woman.

For social anxiety, her cognitive bias is measured with a test involving how quickly one responds to images of angry faces and happy faces. Her social anxiety was aided greatly by the “happy face clicking”. As for the danger-spotting: “I think doing the meditation helped to give me a bit more insight into what I’m thinking and why I am paranoid around roads with my little boy.”

Williams also underwent genetics testing. She has genes that predispose her to developing stronger biases, but also make her better at learning better from experience. “I have one copy of this gene that makes you more sensitive. Maybe that’s why things have stuck harder in my brain than maybe somebody else’s who lost a parent.”

The biggest lesson

In the book, Williams jokes with friends that the biggest lesson she’s learned is “to know when to say f**k it, and go for a walk”. In Boston, Joe DeGutis advised her that you have to accept the fluctuations in the brain’s activity.

Now, when she sits down to a scientific paper and realises she’s not in the right zone, she heads out with her dog and throws around a ball, even for 10 minutes.

“It does the trick every time, whereas before I would’ve just sat there. I still have my neuroses and my butterfly days, but I feel like I can let them pass now and think, this is a phase and its going to happen and I’ll get through it and get back.”

Her biggest surprise was to learn about the cognitive biases that drove her anxiety, “the extent to which these undercurrents of worry were interfering with everything that I wanted to do. That was the reason that I wasn’t very good at math. That was the reason I couldn’t focus properly. It fed into everything. I didn’t realise how neurotic I was until I started the book.”

Williams hopes readers will understand that taking control of your mind is about treating the brain as a whole, as opposed to micromanaging something like working memory with a brain training app. “Feed your brain right, do the exercise, and try and use the right frame of mind for the right job.”

She mentions a conversation with a woman about brain training.

“I went into my whole spiel about how there is no evidence that it stops your brain from ageing, and there’s no evidence that it reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. And her face fell and she said, ‘My mother had Alzheimer’s. That’s why I do it.’ I felt awful. People are obviously scared of things happening to them and want to do everything they can.”

Williams mentions Lumosity, an online brain training company that was fined $2 million last year for making unsubstantiated claims.

“People are making money out of these things,” she says, “when actually you’re just better off doing the boring stuff like exercise and getting sleep. I think we’re all guilty a little bit of wanting an answer that isn’t the boring one.”

Override, by Caroline Williams, is published by Scribe.