Attention & Focus

Attention is the process of concentrating on one thing. We use our attention and focus skills every day, often without really noticing them. Sometimes we need to pay attention to two or more important things at the same time, and may need to switch back and forth between activities quickly. Deficits in attention and focus are a common and devastating consequence of brain injury, leading to functional impairments, rehabilitation barriers, and at times long-term disability. While such deficits are well documented, little is known about their underlying pathophysiology, thus hindering development of effective treatment.

However, meticulous research over decades has found that the control of this vital ability, called selective attention, belongs to a handful of areas in the brain’s parietal and frontal lobes. Now a new study suggests that another area in an unlikely location of the brain, the temporal lobe, also steers the spotlight of attention and focus. This can be impacted by brain injury as well. People who have sustained a brain injury may become easily distracted, have trouble keeping track of what is being said or done, have difficulty doing more than one task at a time, experience information overload, and can be slower at taking in and making sense of information.

To bring this closer to home, imagine a time when you had a head cold or sinus infection, and your head was foggy and your brain was running sluggish. Think of how it felt dragging around while trying to get your mind and body coordinated so you could go on with your day and get your stuff done. Now visualize this as your new daily normal after sustaining a brain injury. So, it is not hard to understand what brain injury survivors go through on a daily basis, given all the consequences of the brain injury and associated symptoms.

Our Experience

Before my accident, you could catch me on the ADD spectrum here and there like everyone else, but most people know how focused I can be. After my accident, I attempted college on and off for about 5 years, with less than success. I realized at the time that my head was not right, but the whole brain injury thing was unknown to me. Attention, focus and concentration was my main trouble, among other symptoms. But then I finally decided to power through while trying everything, from study group, to studying alone at night when the world was asleep, to writing everything, to walking around talking it out. It was tough, I wished that I had help, but I was finally able to make it. So, things did get better, eventually, and years later I was able to focus and concentrate better, once again. In fact, I think that my brain training over many years helped my focus and concentration to a fault, my daughter Sarah tells me how keen I tend to be about my task list, but I do try to keep it at bay.

As for Sarah, and even though we are father and daughter, we had completely different experiences after our brain injury. This alone proves that we are all different. Sarah had major struggles, especially when multitasking, and mainly after her repeated Gamma Knife surgeries. She was studying, working on her dissertation, and preparing for her internship application. A lot to handle. But despite the multiple batteries to her brain, Sarah can sit in the middle of the family room studying, but the TV must be on in the background, and she gets her school work done, slowly but surely. Even with her cluttered environment, as if she doesn’t notice. I don’t even know how to make sense out of what I just wrote. But then again, school was everything to her, and she has been a student for the last 30 years. Could her frontal lobe and inhibition issues, that resulted from her brain injury, be a factor? Could it be that she has always been wired to do well since grade school? Could her study in psychology help her help herself? No one really knows, but we are lucky in that respect.


Research shows that brain training exercises can help improve focus and concentration. According to a recent research study conducted by the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, brain training exercises have a very positive impact on focus, concentration, and attention span. Consistent practice plays a crucial role in improving attention skills after brain injury. The brain has an adaptive healing mechanism called neuroplasticity, which allows it to rewire itself and relearn functions affected by injury.

The most important thing to know is that attention, focus, and even concentration will all eventually get better overtime. Meanwhile, what can you do until then, so you can go on with living your life? Here are some helpful things that you can do, in order to get there faster.

Tasks –

Try to work on one task at a time. Take a deep breath, bring your brain power together, then get started. Use self verbal commands and pen and paper to keep track of progress. It is hard to use pen and paper these days, given all the technologies at your fingertips. But, verbal command as well as pen and paper are all about tracking your tasks using different parts of your brain. When you get distracted or interrupted, they will help you get back on track. Also, when you need to switch tasks, talk it out and write it down, switching from task A to task B, and so on. Try it, it helps.

Distractions –

Try reducing distractions while focusing and paying attention to a given task. This is tricky, because what works for one person, may not work for another. But here are some examples. Set up a simple workspace and keep it organized, using your preferred objects, especially those objects that give you joy and calm, expensive is not necessarily better. Listen to simple and light music, if you are not distracted by it. Use bright enough light for the task at hand, but try soft white color temperature and lower lumens, nothing flashy or bright. Finally, if you get distracted, walk away and take a break for a minute, then try again, etc.

Time –

Give yourself enough time, and choose the right time for the task at hand. When starting a task, make sure that your energy level is good, and your battery is not drained, so you are more likely to succeed. Also, squeezing a task in a small time slot is likely to add pressure. Here is a simple rule to follow about time slots allocation: if your task requires one hour, then allow 1.5 to 2 hours for completion. Not only will this improve the chances for success, but it will reduce the stress of being under the gun, as they say.

Noise –

When it comes to noise and busy places, the general population includes those with tolerance and those who are intolerant. But the general brain injury population is mostly intolerant of noise and busy places. Noise and busy places cause too much input to the brain and waste too much processing power, which will drain the sub-standard battery of the already struggling brain, and that’s before we even get to work on anything.

You can see from our experiences, and the list of subjective things that you can do, how unique we all are and how unique each brain injury is. So, take a look at your attention and focus before and after your brain injury, determine the areas that need help, then try the available tools to see what works.