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What Factors Affect Mental Concentration?

By Nicole Etolen
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Mental concentration typically refers to the ability to focus on certain tasks without becoming distracted. Some tasks and activities, such as washing the dishes or dancing to music, require very little mental focus. Major tasks — things like writing a paper for school, studying for exams, or performing work duties — can require a significant amount of mental concentration, though. Numerous factors can interfere with the ability to focus on a task, including stress, boredom, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition.

Stress can significantly impair mental concentration, as the mind finds it difficult to focus on a specific task when worries about other issues are constantly weighing on it. For example, if a student is currently doing poorly in a class and a specific paper can mean the difference between passing and failing, the pressure to write a flawless paper can make it difficult to concentrate on the subject. Any number of issues can cause stress in a person’s life, from money difficulties to a fight with a friend. Those suffering from stress can help improve mental focus by forcing themselves to take a break from worrying just until their task is complete. By acknowledging the source of the stress and giving themselves permission to worry again later, they may be better able to compartmentalize and perform their necessary tasks.

Getting an adequate amount of sleep is vital to maintaining good mental concentration. Most medical researchers recommend about eight hours of sleep each night for adults, and ten hours for children or teenagers. Even mild sleep deprivation can cause difficulties focusing, and extreme sleep deprivation can lead to dangerous mistakes. For example, studies indicate that driving while very tired is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

Food is one of the basic requirements for sustaining human life, and good nutrition plays a major role in ensuring proper mental concentration. If a person is not taking in an adequate amount of nutrition, the body’s survival mechanism forces him to focus on filling that need, pushing all other thoughts to the back of the mind. Research also indicates that certain foods can help increase mental focus, especially fruits and vegetables rich in brain-protecting antioxidants.

The amount of enjoyment gained from a particular task can also play a large role in determining the level of mental concentration. A task that is not mentally engaging can make focusing difficult, as the mind wanders to more interesting thoughts. Examples of this can be found in school settings, when children who do not feel challenged by material become bored and, in turn, start failing the class because they cannot focus on the subject.

Just about any internal or external factor can influence mental concentration. While some factors may be overcome by proper sleep, nutrition, and changing tactics to enhance focus, others may be more difficult to cope with. Those who are experiences extreme difficulties in concentration should speak to a physician to ensure that there isn’t a more serious underlying cause.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Jan 10, 2015

@Mor - Honestly, that's the attitude people should have towards food in general. We get serious when it comes to medication but we'll put anything that comes in a bright package in our mouths and then expect to be able to function at our best.

It's not enough to just have enough to fuel your body, you have to pick the right kinds of foods in order to fuel your mind.

By Mor — On Jan 09, 2015

@bythewell - Medication can often have strange effects on the mind that you might not anticipate. A few of my friends had to go on anti-malarial medications a few years ago and a couple of them said that it made it much harder to concentrate, although others didn't seem to mind either way.

I also find it's hard to concentrate right after my coffee kicks in. I have to kind of do brainstorming or something that doesn't require focused attention for a while until my mind calms down a bit.

By bythewell — On Jan 08, 2015

I started on antidepressants about a year ago and one of the things I noticed was that my ability to concentrate has gone down. It hasn't really impaired my day to day life and, to be honest, I suspect it's one of the things that helps my mood because I used to focus on a single small detail far too much until I was miserable and now I no longer do that.

I have found that it makes it more difficult to get to sleep though. I used to be able to basically concentrate on something mundane until I drifted off, but now my mind tends to bounce from topic to topic when I'm trying to sleep and I have to make a real effort to get it to calm down.

I guess I wouldn't have said I had higher than average concentration before I went on the medication, but I think I did and now I have just ordinary concentration.

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