Focus Comes First (Attend to Attention, Part 2)

Why focus is the first and most important part of learning anything- especially, Chess.

No matter what we’re trying to learn, there’s one rule to which we must heed.

It comes before any sophisticated learning methods or techniques. Any gurus or courses.

And it’s very simple.

Focus comes first.

Focused attention, free from distraction, is the main prerequisite for learning.

Without it, nothing goes in.

In part one of this series, we talked about the Invisible Gorilla experiment. A famous study that shows us how our attention is deeply selective.

Every moment of every day, there are millions of stimuli slamming into our senses.

Our brains have sophisticated filtering mechanisms to sort through all the information, block most of it out.

If we didn’t have this filtering system, we’d, as David Allen says, “connect to the Internet and explode.”

There was too much information when we were hunter-gatherers. We’ve got no hope now!

So we have built-in filters. And we interface with these filters by deciding where we will point our attention.

Attention can seem like an abstract concept, a little tricky to grasp.

At least it was for me until I understood what attention actually is.

Attention is not some abstract concept. No, it’s a tangible, observable, controllable, physical process in our brains.

Our brain is full of little pockets of information called neurons. They fire in relation to relevant stimuli.

If you look at the sky, your brain fires the neurons that relate to the color blue, the word “sky”, your understanding of the atmosphere and clouds.

Maybe it fires the neurons that hold the story of Icarus and his wax wings, or your dreams to one day be a pilot.

Similar things happens if we see our family, or a muffin, or a Chessboard, or a muffin. (I think I want a muffin.)

That’s what happens when we glance at something. But stuff gets cool when we bring focus into the mix.

When we place our focused attention on something, we send a signal to our brain that says, “this thing is important!”

And our brains, which are very good at responding to important things, leap into action.

The first thing they do is identify which thing we’re focusing on and which neurons it’s connected to.

It labels those neurons as VIPs and emphasises them. Raises their signal against the rest of the noise.

Then it works to shut up the rest of our neurons. Our brain washes irrelevant neurons with alpha waves to quieten them down. Shooshing them like a frustrated librarian if they try to pipe up.

We experience the effects. The thing we’re focused on becomes stronger in our senses. Everything else fades into the background.

(Side note, this is why we should strive to focus on what’s useful about a bad situation instead of what’s bad. Whatever we focus on, we experience more strongly. Focusing on the bad literally makes your experience of a situation worse.)

As I said last time, our attention is like a spotlight illuminating some things and leaving the rest in shadow.

But that’s not all it does.

Another very powerful thing occurs, one completely crucial to retaining information.

Our brains reactivate their plasticity in the focused areas.

Neuroplasticity is the ability our brains have to reshape themselves and encode information rapidly.

A child’s brain is very very plastic. Which is a big part of why kids learn so dang fast.

There’s a myth that neuroplasticity stops as we age. And that leans into the other myth that learning becomes much harder, almost impossible, as we age.

And THAT leads to a lot of adults who think they’ll never learn anything new again. Which is about the saddest thing in the world to me.

The truth is neuroplasticity doesn’t stop. It’s just no longer the default mode for our brain.

We have to reactivate it with our focused attention!

When the spotlight of our attention fixes onto a topic, our brain reactivates its plasticity in the connected regions.

We get back some of the speed of learning we had when we were kids.

And it doesn’t matter what age we are, this works across the board!

Our brains become plastic again in the sectors attached to our focus.

With focused attention, we can learn quickly. Without it, we can’t.

This highlights a major issue for us as Chess improvers in the modern era.

How often do you create 100% focused, distraction-free time when you’re training?

Do you make it a priority to have total focused attention when you play or study?

Most of us don’t. We allow interruptions.

We keep our phones by our side. We have cluttered spaces full of distractions. We don’t protect our time from intrusions.

Every time we allow our focused attention to break, we tell our brain Chess isn’t important to us after all.

And all these amazing things our brain can do, they stop.

If you’re not making progress, ask yourself whether you’re 100% focused when you’re training.

Is your attention, or lack thereof, holding you back?

If you are like most people in today’s hyper-connected world, it probably is.

My recommendation is to build a Chess zone for yourself. A place in your home where you do nothing but study Chess.

Here’s mine.

And it works wonders.

I originally found this idea in GM Noël Studer’s excellent Next Level Training Course.

Here’s what I wrote about Chess zones in a mini-series a little while ago:

Create a place in your home that you only use for Chess.

It doesn’t have to be particularly complicated.

It could be a bench in the garage.

Or the breakfast bar attached to the kitchen. (That’s what I use.)

It could be as simple as a different seat at the dining table than you normally use.

The key is that you only use it for Chess. Make that promise to yourself.

Don’t use your work desk. Or the couch.

You need that separation.

When you are in your Chess zone, you only do Chess. And nothing else.

Before you sit down, put your phone in another room.

Turn off any notifications on your computer. Check with your family if there’s anything they need from you before you get started.

Then sit in your Chess zone, and do only Chess.

A key psychological shift happens when you make a Chess zone.

When you sit there, you tell your brain that it’s time to focus on Chess. You prime it.

You also start working to protect your Chess zone. It becomes important.

You build a ritual you go through before you sit there.

After doing this for a few weeks and building the habit, I felt my entire mental state shift as I sat down in my zone.

I might feel tired after a long day, but when I sit down in my Chess zone my brain switches on.

Engaged. Ready to go.

I’ve taught my brain that when I sit there, it’s time to learn. And it obeys.

If you don’t have a Chess zone or something equivalent, create one.

If we want to improve our Chess, remember:

Focus comes first.

Nothing else can happen if we don’t first have focus.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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