The Brain-Science of Focus, Creativity & Productivity: 6 New Fascinating Facts

Even as we learn more and more about the human brain, the fascinating and myriad ways in which it works still never fail to surprise us. Weighing less than 3 pounds, possessing a buttery-soft consistency and presenting an innocuous — if not oddly benign — affectation when viewed on an MRI screen, this small lump of flesh is nonetheless unfathomably complex, composed of billions upon billions of neurons that are constantly working to regulate everything from the delicate homeostatic balance of our bodies, to the understanding of our individual place in space and time, to our taste in culture and cuisine.

In fact, our brain is so intricate that even the most cutting edge neuroscience is only beginning to unlock its mysteries, leading to such astounding theories as free will being an illusion, psychological confabulation and ‘time-dilation’, among others. Thankfully, all of this new research is also finally putting to rest many of the supposed ‘facts’ that have dogged the poor organ for time out of mind now (for example, the still-popular idea that we use only 10 percent of the brain’s power). 

That being said, what we are finding out is far more interesting anyway, particularly when it comes to the areas of creativity and productivity. Here are 6 of these recent tidbits.

1) The right level of distraction enhances focus and creativity.

While common wisdom has always had it that a silent environment is most conducive to concentration, a recent study published in Oxford University Press revealed interesting findings to the contrary.

It turns out that ambient noise may well be an important environmental variable that affects creativity and productivity in a positive way. Specifically, it was found that a small level of noise (similar to the level in your average coffee shop) actually forced increased focus through a type of abstract thinking, enhancing the generation of more creative ideas in participants.

2) Listening to classical music enhances brain productivity.

Numerous studies have shown that classic music has a positive effect on focus, creativity, and productivity in research participants; for example, a number of specific sonatas by Mozart have been useful in enhancing learning and working memory, actually becoming known over the years as the Mozart Effect.

Other studies have found that listening to classical music resulted in more collaboration between both sides of the brain, resulting in more efficient learning and reducing the number of errors committed during given tasks.  

3) Focusing on one task at a time makes the brain more productive.

We live in a culture that equates multi-tasking with mastery. The people who can do many things at once, often in a seemingly smooth and on-going juggling act, appear to have much of the management of their lives down to a science. Meanwhile, if you’re slow, methodical or of a ‘second-guessing’ type nature, you’re often seen as less competent and aware. 

However, an avalanche of scientific evidence actually suggests the total opposite: that multitasking simply cannot be as effective as ‘zenning-out‘ and diligently performing one task at a time. What’s really occurring during multitasking is that the brain’s power is split between different activities and this forces it to frantically switch from one to another. As a result, the brain cannot really focus on one activity and tackle it in a meaningful way, thus hurting both long-term productivity and quality levels.

4) Physical exercise can make you ‘smarter’ when sedentary.

It is a known fact that exercise plays a profoundly important role in boosting our energy levels and improving health. The same could be said about the brain, because it too is essentially (and very simply put) a metabolic system that requires energy, at all times, in order to function properly. And, of course, the cleaner the energy source, and the more often it’s employed, the better the brain’s overall performance will be.  

This is where exercise comes in. Believe it or not, as the result of regular exercise, one can improve their memory, attention and problem-solving skills, thus enhancing their performance in areas notably ‘unrelated’ to physical activity, such as chess or writing.

This is explained through research that has revealed that physical exercise, even those that would be considered quite ‘simplistic’, actually boosts the size of the hypothalamus, the area of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning.

5) Stress undermines the brain’s productivity.

As we all well know these days, stress (or at least stress without a purpose the experiencer deems ‘worthy’) is extremely bad for us in numerous ways — poor productivity being one of them.

And while stress has myriad effects on the body, its origins (and feedback loops) are found in the brain, of course. When a person experiences stress, a number of areas in their brain respond — including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala — producing particular hormones along with related responses such as an increased heart rate, sweaty palms and muscle tension.

And while this evolutionary response does have it’s advantages — and can actually acutely increase focus in certain situations — most of them are short term. When the stress is chronic, on the other hand, the brain suffers as a result, slowly having the more focus-granting, rational pathways overridden and leading to problems with everything from proper reasoning to sleeping

6) Brainfood — yes, it’s actually a ‘thing’.

Just as with exercise, a healthy diet is one of the best ways to keep the brain energized, ‘lubricated’, and ready to work. Some of the best “smart foods” you can eat include avocados, eggs, yogurt, whole grains, dark chocolate and caffeine. These products are known to improve certain physiological brain/body functions, such as blood flow to the brain, beneficial gut flora and neurotransmitter levels.

On the other hand, it is also recommended to stay away from certain foods that may negatively affect brain productivity, such as saturated fats, fried foods and certain fast-food/packaged pastries. These are particularly insidious due to the known effect of cholesterol plaque build-up in brain blood vessels they cause, leading to, at best, a compromise in the quality of  your thinking (i.e. your ability to properly rationalize) and memory function, and, at worst, can even physically damage the brain tissue.