The ability to focus your attention plays a role in many things – from studying for a test to positive social interactions. Attention deficits can be related to disorders or have other underlying factors. In this article, we dig deeper into what exactly focus is, and ways to improve it.
Attention is the ability to take notice of something or someone. If you focus on something, that means that you are paying particular attention to something.
Sustained attention: the ability to focus cognitive function on specific stimuli.
Selective Attention: the ability to pick one thing to focus on while filtering out stimuli.
Task-switching: the ability to switch between tasks back and forth.
Visual Attention: a type of attention that allows us to deal with capacity problems by selecting relevant, and filtering irrelevant information. Visual attention has 3 subtypes including:
- Spatial: selectively processing visual information through prioritizing an area in your visual field.
- Feature-based: enhances how you perceive an image’s characteristics (useful for filtering out stimuli).
- Object-based: the relationship between an object and selective attention, suggesting enhanced visual processing of that object’s feature.
The Prefrontal Cortex plays a role in executive functions including :
- Sustained Attention
- Short term memory tasks
- Motor attention
- Working memory
- Detecting stimulus/completing tasks
- Inhibitor control of interference
- Delayed responding
- Set shifting
- Active problem solving
While these brain areas are needed to complete tasks at hand, they’re not necessarily involved in concentrating itself.
The Salience Network may be responsible for determining what is most important from incoming information and deciding what requires your focus.
The Salience Network includes three structures :
- Ventral Striatum
- The Substantia Nigra/Ventral Tegmental Area
The Salience Network selects specific stimuli for additional processing from a constant stream of input information.
Saliency detection mechanisms in the brain are at the core of this process and split into two general mechanisms.
- A fast, automatic “primitive” mechanism for filtering out stimuli based on their senses.
- A high-order system for competitive circumstantial specific stimulus selection. This increases resources for goal driven-behaviors based on what is most important at the given time.
It’s important to note that salience (importance of stimuli) may vary between individuals.
The Saliency Network plays a crucial role in identifying the most biologically and cognitive relevant internal and external stimuli to prioritize and guide behavior.
Cholinergic treatments (AMPA receptors/acetylcholine, phosphatidylcholine, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors): they improve attention impairments in conditions where the choline system is dysfunctional and also in healthy subjects [5, 6].
Beta/Alpha waves: these are both associated with attentional processes and other basic cognitive functions .
Cortical thickness: this is reduced in aging and in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Increasing cortical thickness improves focus, perceiving internal experience, sensory processing, and executive functions [8, 9].
Nitric oxide/Increasing brain blood flow: regional blood flow changes are noted in people with ADHD. Additionally, decreased blood flow is associated with cognitive impairments in other diseases [10, 11].
Testosterone: low levels in aging or hypogonadism are associated with cognitive impairments of all kinds including focus. Raising levels to artificial extremes likely will cause cognitive problems, rather than improvements .
Oxidative Stress: reduced oxidative stress helps improve ADHD symptoms .
The following lifestyle interventions may help you improve your focus and attention. Although most of them have multiple health benefits, remember to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle and diet. Importantly, consult a doctor if you have severe inattention or you notice no effects after trying these complementary strategies.
Exercise improves areas that contribute to the ability to focus, including :
Given its multiple health benefits, it’s a good idea to do more exercise whether you want to improve your attention or not.
- Increases klotho, which can help with memory and brain function [24, 25].
- Increases BDNF, which improves memory and selective attention .
Whether you have ADHD or simply want to improve your attention and focus, getting a good night’s sleep is always a good idea and has multiple other benefits. Read this post to learn how to fix your sleep.
While urban environments cause mental fatigue because they require us to constantly use or voluntary attention, outdoor environments in nature only rely on the more relaxing involuntary attention.
In a clinical trial on 17 children with ADHD, concentration and attention performance improved after a 20-minute walk in the park but not in urban settings. Similarly, over 500 parents of children with ADHD responding to 2 surveys reported symptom improvement after outdoor activities [37, 38+, 39].
Experienced meditators were less affected by distracting sounds compared to beginner meditators in several trials .
Meditation also increases the ability to switch focus between tasks, enhances the ability to process information when learning new things, and improves measures of all attentional tasks (in elderly) compared to non-meditators [45, 8].
- Increases brain blood flow 
- Increases cortical thickness in the brain. Decreased cortical thickness is associated with disease and aging 
- Improves myelination 
- Increases BDNF 
- Reduces 5-HT2A activation in the default mode network 
ADHD is associated with low omega-3 to omega-6 levels in the blood and cell membranes. Dietary fatty acids such as EPA and DHA restored normal omega-3 levels in 6 clinical trials on over 700 children with ADHD, resulting in improved attention, working memory, learning capacity, and behavior [47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52].
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fish and other seafood (such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, sardines, and oysters)
- Nuts and seeds (such as walnuts and chia seeds)
- Plant oils (such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oil)
- Fortified foods (such as juices, soy beverages, and dairies)
If you are diagnosed with a condition with impaired attention (e.g., ADHD), your doctor may prescribe any of the following drugs. Only take these drugs if prescribed by a licensed physician and carefully follow their recommendations.
Adderall is a pharmaceutical mix of levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Vyvanse is another amphetamine-based drug for ADHD that is only made up of lisdexamfetamine dimesylate [53, 54].
- Difficulty maintaining focus while distracted
- Difficulty sustaining attention
- Delayed reaction time
- Loss of short-term memory
- Decreased cognitive function
- Difficulty shifting attention between tasks
However, Adderall is widely abused, and long-term abuse may cause brain toxicity .
Ritalin is a stimulant used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. It improved working memory, sustained attention, and reaction time in 14 trials on over 800 children with ADHD [72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85].
It is important not to exceed the minimum effective dose when using stimulants. Higher doses are associated with more errors when completing tasks .
Clonidine improved inattention in 6 clinical trials on almost 600 children with ADHD, especially in combination with stimulants. A meta-analysis found it less effective than stimulants and with more side effects (especially drowsiness) [104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110+].
- Mimics norepinephrine at the a2a receptor 
- Enhances brain blood flow in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex 
The following drugs are approved for other conditions than ADHD by the FDA but are prescribed by some doctors off-label to people who don’t respond to conventional medicines for ADHD.
Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug used in the treatment of narcolepsy.
Modafinil may have advantages over current ADHD treatment due to less potential for addiction and the need to only take it once a day .
- Increases orexin 
- Moderately inhibits the dopamine transporter (DAT) and norepinephrine transporter (NET) 
MAO inhibitors are dangerous when combined with various medications (barbiturates, morphine, etc.), supplements, and even foods high in tyramine. People with liver disease should also refrain from taking MAO inhibitors .
Selegiline metabolizes into methamphetamine and amphetamine stimulant compounds .
Methylphenidate and Selegiline were equally efficient in improving attention (teacher and parent ADHD rating scale test) in a clinical trial on 28 children with ADHD, but Selegiline had fewer side effects .
Selegiline improved sustained attention, hyperactivity, and peer interactions associated with ADHD in another trial on 11 children .
Selegiline (L-Deprenyl) Mechanisms
- Enhances Dopamine D1 and D2 receptors 
- Increases dopamine levels 
- Inhibits MAO-B at low doses, preventing the breakdown of beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, tyramine, and benzylamine [128, 129]
- At higher doses inhibits MAO-A, preventing the breakdown of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and tyramine [128, 130, 131]
Bupropion is an antidepressant that increases the levels of both dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain by blocking their reuptake. It improved ADHD symptoms in 2 clinical trials on 219 adults with this condition [132, 133].
Other drugs that improved attention in clinical trials on people with ADHD include:
- Tricyclic antidepressants (such as desipramine and nortriptyline) [134, 135]
- Antipsychotics (such as aripiprazole and risperidone) [136, 137]
- Nicotine receptor activators [138, 139]
The following supplements may help you improve your attention and focus. However, their medicinal use has not been approved by the FDA due to the lack of solid research. Supplements should not be used in place of medication prescribed for you by your doctor. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements to avoid potentially dangerous interactions
L-theanine and caffeine is a commonly used combination, or stack, in the nootropic community. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine significantly increased accuracy in switching attention between tasks in a clinical trial on 44 young adults .
Caffeine alone (75 mg/150 mg) increased alertness in a clinical trial on 50 fully-rested and partially sleep-deprived subjects .
Caffeine can :
- Boost energy
- Increase daily energy expenditure
- Reduce fatigue
- Decrease sense of effort associated with physical activity
- Improve motor performance
- Improve cognitive performance
- Increase wakefulness
- Reduce mental fatigue
- Quicken reactions and improve accuracy on tasks
- Improve concentration
- Help solve reasoning problems
- Improve ability to make correct decisions
- Blocks adenosine receptors (A1R, A2aR, A2bR, and A3R) 
- Inhibits phosphodiesterase enzymes and increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) 
Nicotine is addictive and poses many health risks. Safer methods of consuming nicotine than smoking include snus, patches, gum/lozenges, and vaping (these reduce the harm of smoke inhalation but do not remove the risk of addiction).
- Sustained attention
- Switching attention between tasks
- Selective attention
- Accuracy completing tasks
- Visual attention
- Increases brain blood flow in the parieto-occipital region 
- Activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (α2-α10 and β2-β4), increases dopamine levels and releases glutamate, acetylcholine, and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex 
- Increases long-term potentiation, strengthening connections between neurons 
Tyrosine improved stress-induced impairments of attention and multitasking .
- Converts L-dopa to dopamine through the tyrosine hydroxylase enzyme 
Citicoline is a naturally occurring intermediate in the creation of phosphatidylcholine from choline.
In several trials on people with cognitive impairment associated with stroke and diseases of the vessels, citicoline improved :
- Ability to interact with the environment combining senses and motor skills
- Behavioral and emotional control
- Executive functions
- Temporal orientation
- Enhances acetylcholine synthesis 
- Increases phosphatidylcholine, which helps protect nerve cell membranes 
- May alleviate free fatty acid-induced toxicity associated with stroke 
Although it cannot treat ADHD, ginseng showed potential as an addition to current treatment in a clinical trial on 18 people .
- Ginsenosides increase norepinephrine and dopamine (cortex) .
The following supplements also improved attention in clinical trials:
- Pine bark extract (pycnogenol) [156, 157, 158]
- Lobeline 
- Cannabinoids 
- Marine oil extract 
- Zinc [162, 163, 164]
- Iron [165, 166]
- Magnesium [167, 168]
- Vitamin D [42, 41]
- Vitamin B6 
The following drugs are classified as new, unapproved drugs by the FDA due to the lack of solid clinical research. Although some studies suggest they may help improve focus and attention, remember that there is no safe dosage for them and they pose a significant safety risk. We highly advise against the use of these substances.
Piracetam is the most well-studied racetam. It improved continuous, selective, and divided attention in a clinical trial on 80 children (60% response rate in 30 children receiving 70 mg/kg, 43% when receiving 40 mg/kg) with ADHD .
A single dosage (2.4g) of Piracetam compared to 4.8 or 9.6 g increased cooperativity between functional brain processes, suggesting a lower dose may be more effective, in a small trial on 12 healthy volunteers .
Piracetam improved cognitive function in a clinical trial on 64 men undergoing bypass surgery .
- Increases blood flow to the brain 
- Increase cell membrane permeability 
- Improves the brain’s ability to form and reorganize connections between neurons 
- Increases oxygen consumption to the brain [177, 178]
- Protects against mitochondrial dysfunction 
Oxiracetam is a mild stimulant and nootropic. It improved test scores in attention, consistency, and concentration in multiple trials on people with ADHD and mild to moderate dementia [180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186].
- Increases acetylcholine use (in rats) 
- Increases choline use (in the hippocampus) 
- Enhances the activity of choline pathways (septohippocampal) and the cortical choline network 
Phenylpiracetam is piracetam with a phenyl ring attached, increasing its potency.
It improved impairments of cognitive function in a clinical trial on 99 patients with brain lesions, including:
- Impaired motor coordination
- Lack of Attention
- Difficulty counting
Patients also displayed increased energy and daily activity, possibly due to its stimulating effects .
Phenylpiracetam has not been well-studied in clinical trials. Users report an increase in focus, mood, and reaction times. Some people claim the improvement in focus are not as prominent as its mood-boosting effects [189, 190, 191].
- Increased brain alpha/beta waves .
Pramiracetam is a stimulating, cognitive function-enhancing drug belonging to the Racetam class.
Although it is a less studied racetam in regards to benefits to focus, it is often considered the strongest racetam. In a clinical trial on 24 men, pramiracetam reduced the negative effects of scopolamine on memory and attention .
In another trial, piracetam improved word recall in men with brain damage .
- Extremely sharp focus, and increased depth of focus
- Improved logical reasoning ability
- Improved ability to handle tedious tasks
- Ability to produce higher quality material when completing assignments
- Increase in productivity
- Increases BDNF (in rat hippocampus and frontal cortex) .
- Increases serotonin (striatal) .
- Increases resistance to hypoxia .
It improved cognitive function in a clinical trial on 60 patients recovering from strokes. However, the study hasn’t been translated from Russian and we cannot access its specifics for a critical analysis .
- Mental sharpness
Some users don’t experience positive effects, but it seems to be well-tolerated. Some users have reported being more sensitive to negative emotions.
- May increase alpha/beta1 activity in all brain regions 
- Stimulates BDNF in the hippocampus 
- Increases choline levels 
- Reduces oxidative stress and improves the ability of antioxidant systems 
PRL-8-53 is a compound derived from phenylethylamine.
In a clinical trial on 47 healthy participants, PRL-8-53 enhanced learning ability (word recall) .
Sunifiram is an experimental derivative of racetams, with significantly higher potency than piracetam, the first racetam synthesized. This drug has only been tested in animal studies, meaning there is no evidence (aside from anecdotes) of its effectiveness in humans.
In rats, sunifiram increased learning ability and had beneficial effects on cognitive function .
- Improved focus
- Easier to shift attention between tasks
- Stimulating properties
- Better mood
- Significant anxiety
- Blood pressure issues
- Short duration of positive effects
- Even reports of psychotic episodes
Users recommended increasing the dosage slowly.