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How can we help someone focus on their homework?

Answer: Homework Help Kit!

We created our Homework Help Kit to figure out how we can be more focused and effective with our school work. In addition, we believe that this kit will help kids like us be less frustrated with our homework and also cut down the time we spend doing it...That means more time for fun!

Cost :$12

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Ask the Expert

We recently interviewed Dr. Todd Braver, a professor at Washington University about his job and how the brain works. Check out our interview below!

What is your name?

Todd Braver

What is your job title?

Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Radiology

What type of things do you do in your job?

I teach both undergraduate and graduate students. I usually teach more advanced courses rather than introductory courses (which I like). These are in the area of cognitive neuroscience which is basically understanding how our brains allow us to think, learn, pay attention, understand and speak language, remember, plan, reason, etc.

I also supervise students on a 1-on-1 basis as they learn how to conduct research in this area. Finally, I conduct my own research, in large projects, that are supported by grants from the government.

What type of training or schooling did you have to have to do your job?

First, I had to get a college degree. I went to the University of California, San Diego. My major was in Psychology and Neuroscience, so I learned both about the brain and the mind, and learned how to connect the two. I also minored in Philosophy, which helped me think about important issues in how we do science and develop new theories.

Then after that I went to graduate school to get a PhD (which makes me kind of a doctor, but not the kind that does medicine). I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to become specialized further in cognitive neuroscience. I also learned how to become skilled at doing my own research.

What do you like best about your job?

Lots of things! But I really enjoying teaching students both about the current knowledge about the brain & mind, and also how best to do research to study all the unanswered questions.

I also really enjoy getting to do research myself -- I get to ask very challenging but fun questions, and then go out and investigate them myself, hopefully learning new things that will enhance our knowledge and be useful to society.

What do you like the least about your job?

Sometimes I have to do a lot of "busy work" -- lots of paperwork that I'm not so good at! Also, sometimes it is frustrating when you think you have good ideas for research projects or new findings, but it can be hard to get funding (money) to do new work.

How does the brain's thinking process work?

Wow, that is a very complicated (but important) question, that we don't even have a full answer for yet. But in basic terms, the basic elements of the brain are special cells called neurons. They work in large groups and act kind of like mini-computers, taking in lots of information from the environment or the body or other neurons, then doing some simple processing on it, and passing on the results to other neurons.

Together, all of this teamwork and message passing helps to coordinate the signals so that we can make good sense out of our environment and act in useful ways. The pathways and connections between neurons are also very good at storing past experiences as memories. In this way, the brain allows us to learn from our experience, getting better at things we do frequently, and helping to avoid our past mistakes.

How does the brain focus on tasks?

Another very good & important question, that is hard to answer simply (partly because this is my area of research, so I think about it in more complicated terms).  

Focusing on tasks, especially hard ones, that take a while to complete, require what we call goal-directed attention. Your brain develops a goal -- a particular outcome that you think it is important to achieve (i.e., get my homework done, so I can learn something new, get a good grade, and make myself and my parents happy). This goal might be stored in memory, but at appropriate times it will become activated (e.g., after school, when you are thinking about what to do).  

The activation of this goal occurs within two parts of the brain that are very important for attention, the lateral prefrontal cortex and lateral parietal cortex. They work together as a team but have different roles. The prefrontal part is important for helping to keep that goal continuously active, so you don't forget about it. It also seems to be important for helping to keep accessible all the advanced knowledge you might use to do your homework (e.g., all the prior math knowledge you have if you are doing math homework).

The prefrontal cortex also tells the parietal cortex what are the relevant things to pay attention to in the environment (the homework problems written in your book). Then the parietal cortex helps you actually focus on those things, and conversely to not focus on the irrelevant things (e.g., the conversation that your brother or sister might be having in the other room).

So there are really two important components: having the goal sharply in mind so that it can access the relevant knowledge and determine what is relevant to attend to (prefrontal), and then setting your attention so that you focus on the important things and ignore the unimportant and distracting things (parietal). Of course, other parts of the brain are very important too (and the process is a lot more complicated and not fully understood), but these are the key ingredients.  

How hard is it for the brain to eliminate distractions?

Pretty hard sometimes (as you probably already have guessed from experience)! Distractions are really hard to ignore when the following occur: 1) your goal is not really that strong (it's not a task you really want to do) or it seems abstract or far-off in the future (our brain has an easier time dealing with immediate, concrete goals); 2) your goal doesn't really make clear what is important to pay attention to (the goal of doing well in a class, doesn't always translate into exactly how best to pay attention); 3) the distractions are very interesting or exciting (events that strongly activate our emotional systems are hard to ignore).

One thing that scientists like me are trying to figure out is why some people's brain seem to be more susceptible to distractions and others not. It could be for different reasons, their brains don't strongly activate goals in prefrontal cortex, their prefrontal cortex doesn't communicate well with the parietal, or their brains are just more generally responsive to distractions. Once we understand this better we can figure out the right strategies to help different people minimize the effects of distraction in the most effective ways.

How does loud noise or things that capture your attention distract the brain?

Our brains are actually hard-wired to response to intense sensory experiences (loud noises, bright lights, strong smells), as well as to external events that change rapidly. This makes sense because these kind of experiences usually signal something important. For example, it's not an accident that police cars and ambulances use loud sirens and bright lights, because these quickly capture your attention -- and they are supposed to.

Our brains seem to have something like a circuit-breaker or interrupt-switch located in a brain circuit involving two brain regions called the ventral prefrontal cortex and tempo-parietal junction. These brain regions appear to be triggered by things like loud noises or emotionally-important events, and they allow attention and processing to be quickly interrupted and re-routed to focus on that event. This is a great thing in cases where it really is important for us to switch our attention (an ambulance is coming by and we need to get out of the way). But it creates problems when the event is something we should actually ignore. It can take a long time and great difficulty for the brain to allow us to "pick up where we left off".

Are there smells or foods that can help you focus better?

There is lots of evidence that eating healthy helps our brain work better, and keeps our attention sharp. In contrast, heavy & fattening foods (all of our favorite junk foods!) tend to make people more tired because they require lots of metabolic resources to digest. When your brain is tired it wants to rest, and not work hard on an attentional demanding task. So working on a hard task after eating a heavy meal is difficult, and your mind is likely to wander, especially as you get sleepy.

It is true that caffeine does help our attentional systems and allow us to focus better. That's why lots of people like to drink coffee, especially when tired. However, it is important to be careful with it, because there is what is called a "dose-response curve", which means that having too much caffeine can actually work against focusing and attention. It can make you jumpy, agitated, and also hard to keep attention focused for long periods of time. Every person is different, so it is important to learn your own dose-response curve. Also, evidence suggests that caffeine can cause some other problems in development before kids are fully grown. So it seems important to limit caffeine when you are still growing.

Does your health affect how you focus?

Yes, definitely! Two other important factors, besides diet, are sleep and exercise. Keeping our bodies physically fit allows the brain to more effectively allocate energy resources, leaving enough available for hard mental tasks. In general, having a healthy heart (aerobic fitness) seems to also have lots of other positive effects on the brain, like enabling good circulation and oxygen delivery, and clearing away all the by-products that get left in the brain when it works hard. Getting enough sleep is also really critical. We know that the brain just cannot attend as well when we are sleep deprived. Even getting 6 hours of sleep a night rather than 8 (or 9-10 for kids) can have a big effect on how well the brain attends, especially when tasks are hard. We don't know exactly what it is that sleep does to help the brain, but seems to be important for clearing away the by-products that build-up over the day, and also for learning and memory. Our brains really are using our sleep period to help us "stamp in" (consolidate) the things we learned during the day.

Finally, when we are sick, our bodies have to allocate a lot of resources towards fighting the illness and getting us better. Because of that there seems to be less available for thinking hard during that period. That is why it is so important to rest & recover when we are not feeling well, so that we can get our brains and bodies back into the best shape possible for thinking & learning.

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