It’s important to understand what a neurofeedback clinician means when talking about focus. Williams (2014) talked about focus as a person’s ability to direct attention to appropriate cues while simultaneously blocking out distracting cues. Focus, concentration, and attention are often used interchangeably, but they all highlight an important skill that many people struggle with before starting neurofeedback.
There are many reasons why someone may be struggling to maintain focus. There can be biological factors like lack of sleep or hunger. There can be psychological reasons such as self-doubt or lack of motivation. There can also be social factors contributing to a lack of focus, such as a student being in class with a bully. That student will struggle to focus on the lesson plan as the student can only pay attention to the bully sitting near them. Environmental factors also play a role in someone’s ability to stay focused on a task. For example, a cold classroom will be distracting to a student taking a test. Assessing these factors are crucial when working with a client struggling to sustain attention.
Nideffer’s Model of Attention
Nideffer focused on two factors to concentration: how many cues are being focused on and where is attention being directed. When assessing the amount of cues a person is focusing on, Nideffer used the terms broad and narrow. Broad focus means the person is paying attention to many cues, while narrow focus means the person is focusing on 1-2 cues. When assessing where attention is being directed, Nideffer asks whether the person is focusing on the external environment or internal environment. For example, a person focusing on the external environment may be fixated on the temperature. Focusing on the internal environment involves someone focusing on something happening in the body, such as heart rate. Nideffer paired the number of cues with the location of the cues to come up with four types of attention.
Broad-internal focus involves someone paying attention to a lot of things happening in the body. For example, a person with a broad-internal focus during a test may be focusing on distracting thoughts, being hungry, being tired, etc.
Broad-external focus involves someone paying attention to many things happening in the environment. For example, a person reading a book in a park may be focusing on the book, but also be paying attention to people talking, animal noises, the temperature, the comfort of the seat, etc.
Narrow-internal focus involves a person fixating on one or two things happening in the body. For example, someone who is nervous about a performance may only be able to focus on how fast their heart is going or how hard it is to breath.
Narrow-external focus involves a person fixating on one or two things in the environment. For example, a person reading without distractions can fixate on the book.
Many people tend to think that having a narrow-external focus is the secret to success. However, flexibility between attention styles is key.
Utilizing Nideffer’s Model with Neurofeedback to Improve Focus
People starting neurofeedback to improve concentration tend to think that they need to be able to fixate on the task in front of them to be successful. However, Williams (2014) and Weinberg and Gould (2011) talked about flexibility being the key. Most performances require shifting attention styles throughout the performance. It is important to know that no attention styles are good or bad, but rather appropriate or inappropriate given the moment in time. The most successful performers can shift from one style to the next when the situation needs a shift.
To show how to use Nideffer’s model in neurofeedback, let’s start by having a teenage cis male come to neurofeedback because he is struggling to focus at work due to anxiety. The person works as a retail clerk and struggles to interact with customers. All he can focus on when a customer enters the store is how fast his heart is beating. This narrow-internal focus makes it difficult to do his job as he cannot focus on social cues, which could help him increase sales and be more effective at his job.
The first step for a neurofeedback clinician in this case is to assess the attention styles needed for the specific performance versus the attention styles actually utilized by the person during the performance. In this situation, the process of attention styles may look like the following:
– Customer enters store and person starts by body scanning to check for symptoms or signs of anxiety (broad-internal).
– If signs of anxiety are detected all over (increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, etc.), then they may benefit from shifting to a narrow-internal style if they have the capability of addressing each sign of anxiety through skills like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. If the person detects no signs of anxiety, then they can shift to a broad-external attention style, which allows the person to scan the environment for any potential triggers or distractions.
– Next, the person can shift to a narrow-external style by focusing solely on the customer.
– Once the person is focused on the customer, a shift to a broad-external style can be made so the person can begin reading social cues that will help with a sale.
– Once a social cue is identified (e.g. customer staring at a certain product), then the person can begin the process of the sale. Throughout the sales process, the person may need to continuously shift from narrow-internal or broad-internal (helps maintain strong intrapersonal functioning) to narrow-external or broad-external functioning (helps maintain strong interpersonal functioning) to finish the sale.
The process discussed demonstrates how a person wants to be flexible with their attention styles, rather than mastering a narrow-external focus. So often, parents and teachers want students to stay focused on one thing, when, the ability to shift between attention styles throughout a performance makes students perform better. The sales process described previously shows that the employee would benefit from knowing about and being able to utilize multiple attention styles throughout the sale.
Overall, a strong neurofeedback clinician will teach the different attention styles to the clients and have them practice each style in training. Clinicians want people to be able to identify the style being used in the moment, assess whether it is the appropriate style given the situation and moment in time, and either utilize that style or shift to a more appropriate attention style. Clinicians also want clients to know whether they are using their styles to improve performance or worsen performance. For example, the retail employee using a narrow-internal style to fixate on his shortness of breath will worsen the sales process. However, if the person uses a narrow-internal style to focus on a positive thought that instills confidence, then the narrow-internal focus may improve the sales process. Like many other skills, attention styles and shifting can help someone reach their goals or make it more difficult. It is important for the clinician to help the person recognize whether their attention style tendencies are helpful or harmful to a given performance.
Weinberg, R., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Williams, J. (2014). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Publisher.