Nootropics and Focus
In modern academic and professional environments being able to concentrate for prolonged periods on mentally strenuous work is absolutely vital. Many people find devoting their full attention to a task for long periods of time very difficult, however. Luckily there are a wide variety of nootropics which can improve your ability to concentrate. Read on to learn more about focus and how nootropics can improve it.
What Is Focus?
Focus is defined as the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one thing while ignoring all other outside stimuli. Whether we are doing work, playing sports, or even watching television, being able to focus to is critical. Without focus our minds would simply drift from distraction to distraction. Every little noise, smell, itch, or movement would tear our minds from the task at hand. For some people focusing comes easy while for other people, it can be excruciatingly difficult.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, is a developmental disorder that results in the patient suffering from attention and focus problems. Those who suffer from ADHD are easily distracted, frequently jump from one activity or train of thought to another, forget things more easily, and may have difficulty processing information at a normal pace. 
Before we dive into what effects your ability to concentrate it is important that you understand the difference between the two main types of attention.
Focused attention is when your brain picks up on any outside stimuli. This is the shortest form of attention, usually lasting around 8 seconds. Hearing a loud bang while you are watching TV or writing a paper in an example of focused attention. You pay attention to the noise, but after a brief amount of time you return your focus to your prior task.
Sustained attention is the type of attention that you use when concentrating on a particular task. For example, doctors performing surgery must be very focused and sustain their attention on their operations for long periods of time. What surprises most people is that a healthy adult or teenage can usually sustain attention on a particular action for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. However, they can quickly choose to focus again on their task when their mind strays. 
Think about the last time you watched a movie or wrote a long paper. Chances are you were distracted, or your mind wandered at some point. But as when you realized you have lost focus you can refocus on the movie or paper. They key to being able to concentrate and focus is to maximize the amount of time you can sustain attention and minimize the length of time you spend distracted.
What Affects Your Sustained Attention?
In order to increase one’s attention span it’s important to know what variables change the length of sustained attention:
People can sustain attention longer when they find the task enjoyable.
This one seems obvious. Think about the last time you watched a really enjoyable movie versus the last time you wrote an excruciatingly boring paper. During the movie you were probably entranced. You may have barely even noticed the brief periods where you broke sustained attention. Chances are any outside distractions or stimuli actually annoyed or angered you. You actually wanted to pay attention to the movie. It came naturally.
Now think about the last time you wrote a boring paper. You were probably checking your phone or opening up your internet browser every 10 or 15 minutes. After every sentence you would sit back and crack your fingers. Depending on how long it took you may have even stopped to take a break. The difference here is that the paper was not enjoyable. You would much rather have been paying attention to something else causing a very short attention span.
People can sustain attention longer when they are motivated to complete the task.
Let’s bring up that boring paper you are writing. But instead of just getting a grade for it, your professor tells you that if you do well you will receive $10,000. Everything just changed completely. You aren’t going to be opening your browser or checking your phone nearly as often. You will be entranced in the material, checking and re-checking every line to make sure that it makes sense. You might not even leave your seat until you are satisfied with the result.
Now let’s pretend you are a waiter. Chances are you are fairly focused when you bring out a dish to a table. You don’t want to drop it because you may get in trouble with your boss and you will have a huge mess to clean up. Now suppose that your boss tells you he is going to bury you alive if you drop the next plate you bring out. Extreme, I know. But if you actually thought that you would be buried alive every ounce of attention you had to spare would be on the task of not dropping the plate. The bottom line is that the more motivated you are, the longer you can sustain attention.
People have trouble sustaining attention when they are fatigued.
The more fatigued you are the harder it is to sustain attention. This one seems pretty obvious also. I’m sure you have been in a situation where you have been too tired to concentrate. Your mind is foggy, it takes more effort to sustain attention, and all you can think about is sleep. More rest and less fatigue will always make it easier to concentrate.
People have trouble sustaining attention when they find the task confusing or difficult.
The easier time someone has completing a task the better people can pay attention to it. Think about the last really confusing movie you watched. Now compare it to the last simple action movie you saw. Assuming you enjoyed them both equally, you probably found your mind wandering to other things more often during the confusing one.
People have trouble sustaining attention when there are a lot of distractions.
This one’s a no brainer also. It is a lot easier to complete a task in complete silence as opposed to being next to a construction yard. Random, sporadic, distractions trigger your focused attention and cause breaks in your sustained attention.
How Can Nootropics Maximize Your Sustained Attention?
Obviously you won’t be able to change some of these variables with nootropics. There aren’t any pills you can take to eliminate distractions or make a task less complicated. However, there are nootropics available that can reduce fatigue, increase feelings of motivation, and increase feelings of enjoyment. All these things lead to better focus and longer sustained attention.
Let’s return to people with ADHD. There is medication available to help treat their condition by lengthening their attention span. Take Adderall for example. This medication works to reduce fatigue by increasing physical and mental energy, and cause feelings of enjoyment and motivation. It improves the three most important variables when it comes to sustaining attention. You can read exactly how Adderall works and feels here.
The short version is that Adderall is a stimulant. It increases the levels of three neurotransmitters in your body, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Higher levels of these neurotransmitters lead to feelings of enjoyment, motivation, and give you a rush of energy. However, Adderall is a prescription drug that is not readily available. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t nootropics that have similar effects. There are many nootropics available to everyone that act as stimulants and can lengthen one’s ability to sustain attention.
Nootropics that act as stimulants to improve sustained attention:
- Addrena – Nootropic stack designed to mimic the effects of Adderall
- Adrafinil – Mild stimulant that effects dopamine levels in the brain
- Modafinil – Moderate stimulant, more potent version of Adrafinil
- Caffeine - Mild stimulant, the most commonly known and consumed nootropic
- Deprenyl – Reduces fatigue and improves mood, also known to increase lifespan
- Rhodiola Rosea – Increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins
Nootropics that aren’t stimulants but improve sustained attention by other means:
- DMAE – Increases levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, linked to increased focus and mood
- Centrophenoxine – Effects similar to DMAE
- Galantamine – Inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine, linked to increased focus
- Huperzia Serrata – Inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine, linked to increased focus
- Sulbutamine – Increases levels of thiamine causing feelings of enjoyment and motivation
- Bacopa – Increases levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin
- Theanine –Increases levels of serotonin and dopamine
- Tyrosine – Increases levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine
Which Nootropics Work Best?
If you are looking for a single nootropic to improve attentiveness then I suggest you use one that acts as a stimulant. Addrena is a nootropic stack specifically designed to simulate the effects of Adderall. If attentiveness is your only goal then I would start there. However, all the other nootropics in the stimulant category will produce noticeable effects. Some may work better than others. It all depends on your brain’s make-up. Adrafinil might work better for you while Deprenyl may work better for someone else. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Modafinil is the most powerful.
Even though the nootropics in the second category will improve your focus, the effects are not going to be nearly as noticeable. The majority affect levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Even though studies have linked increased levels of this neurotransmitter to improved focus, mental energy, and improved mood, you won’t feel the effects as strongly as you would if you took a stimulant.
My best advice is to read through the articles on each nootropic to help determine which one(s) meet your specific needs.
1. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” Health & Outreach. Publications. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder/complete-index.shtml July 15, 2009