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Scientists study what happens in your brain when you're in "the zone."

Scientists study what happens in your brain when you're in “the zone.”

Research into this trance-like state may help develop ways to improve your attention in the future.

An exciting book, a complex puzzle, or even a work file: we all have moments when time seems to disappear and the hours fly by. This state is often called the “zone” or “deep focus” in which you can find yourself. It's something committed researcher Dolly Seeberger herself is also aware of. During her childhood, she particularly enjoyed activities that required her full attention. “That's when I felt most satisfied,” she recalls, “when I was in the area.” “Hours have passed, but they felt like minutes.”

Therefore, I decided to work with a multidisciplinary team of Georgia Tech To investigate what is happening in our brain at these moments. Because although deep concentration is very useful for working effectively, researchers do not know exactly how this phenomenon arises. “Your brain is always dynamic. Nothing is simply on or off,” Seeberger explains. “How do we achieve deep focus, and why are some people able to hold their attention better than others? Is this something that can be trained? If so, can we help people improve their performance?

Tapping with a metronome
To find out, scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain activity during moments of deep concentration and during periods when they are more likely to wander. To measure participants' attention span during these tasks, participants had to tap a metronome while sitting in an fMRI scanner. By looking at how evenly participants clicked, the team was able to determine how focused the participants were. Several variations in rhythm indicated that the participant was less focused, while subtle tapping indicated that the participant was in a deep, trance-like state of concentration.

“Deep focus” vs. “hyper focus”
Although engaging in “hyperfocus” has many similarities to the experience of deep focus, there are a number of differences. First, hyperfocus occurs mainly in people with ADHD. When someone with ADHD is in this state, they not only have no sense of time, but they also have no sense of their surroundings. When you are in a state of deep concentration, you are also in your own world, but you are not so focused on a task that you no longer notice where you are and who you are.


Brain waves

At the same time, the team measured the participants' brain waves. Specifically, low-frequency brain waves. “For a long time, brainwave studies have focused on faster, more transient frequencies,” Seeberger says. “Understanding the value of the information you can get from these very low-frequency waves is relatively new. But it is precisely these low-frequency fluctuations that may play a key role in regulating higher cognition, such as sustained attention. Fluctuations in these brain waves occur in cycles It's about 20 seconds long and varies between individuals and situations, so it's not always easy to spot differences, says co-author Eric Schumacher.

Brain networks
By studying these cycles, the team was able to establish links between fluctuations in brain waves and changes in attention. In particular, the fronto-parietal control network (which becomes active when someone is focusing on a task) and the default mode network (which is active during rest and meditation) played an important role in this. “If someone is out region “If located, these two networks synchronize and are at low frequency,” Seeberger explains. “If someone is in region If located, these networks will be effectively de-synchronized.

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The results suggest that 20-second patterns can help predict whether a person will maintain their attention or not. Researchers hope that this vision will contribute to increased insight into our inner world. In the future, this could provide new ways to improve our attention and focus.