From Jenga to Tennis: Strengthening Your Attention in All Categories

Keeping your attention laser-focused in a distracted world

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Restak lays out the different categories of attention, which include selective attention and divided attention. He then provides simple exercises you can do to engage these parts of your brain.

Man playing tennis getting ready to serve
The task of practicing your serve in tennis strengthens both selective attention and sustained attention of brain cognition skills. Photo by Lucky Business / Shutterstock

Categories of Attention

Improved attention can lead to cognitive enhancement in multiple areas. Electroencephalograms (EEGs), which record electrical activity in the brain, have shown a link between sustained focus and increases in anterior cingulate activity (the part of the brain that regulates emotions), which correlates with improvements in emotional control. Attention falls into several categories, and you can use specific techniques to enhance each of these categories.

These categories include sustained attention, selective attention, divided attention, processing speed, and proprioceptive attention. Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task for a given period of time, while selective attention involves filtering out distractions within a set of stimuli to focus on one thing.

To strengthen selective attention, you can quickly dictate a long string of randomly selected letters and numbers into a voice recorder. Later on, you would listen to the recording and tally only the numbers or only the letters at the end of the list. This works even better if you can get someone else to read the list for you. 

Divided attention is attending to two tasks at once. It’s similar to multitasking but different in that you are actually performing these tasks simultaneously (unlike multitasking, where you are switching between two tasks and only experiencing the perception of simultaneity). One exercise you can perform to enhance your divided attention is to rapidly tap your finger while listening to a news story on the radio. 

Processing speed is an attention mechanism that refers to the time it takes to mentally complete a task. To challenge yourself in this area, shuffle a deck of cards and break the cards into suits from Ace to Deuce, timing yourself.

Proprioceptive attention has to do with bodily awareness. A proprioceptive attention game is Jenga, which is a game involving a tower of blocks. You remove one at a time carefully, paying attention to your hand movements and your spatial movements without collapsing the whole thing. 

Music Training and the Brain

To strengthen your attention in multiple categories, you can engage in music training. Research shows that after 15 months, structural changes occur in brain circuits used for music processing. 

Playing musical instruments enhances your motor and auditory skills, and in some instances it has been linked to IQ increases. Michael Posner, a neurologist who’s written extensively on music and the arts, said that “music training can change brain circuitry, and in some instances, improve general cognition.

“The key factor is diligence. Practicing for long periods of time […] and with sustained focus can produce stronger and more efficient attention networks, and these key networks in turn affect cognitive skills more generally.”

How Athletics Improve Attention

Like music, athletics can strengthen your attention in multiple categories. It combines all sensory spheres. You eventually develop what is referred to as “muscle memory,” but in reality, it is brain memory because it’s setting up circuits within the brain, creating embodied knowledge—knowledge which your body instinctually performs, such as riding a bike.

Dr. Restak recommends concentrating on areas of weakness. For example, if you’re playing tennis and you want to improve your serve, then concentrate on that. Although we tend to do the same things over and over because they’re comfortable, we need to incorporate variety into our routine and introduce new challenges if we want to grow.

The brain thrives on getting information and paying attention. The arts, sports, and everyday living all provide opportunities to strengthen attention. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.