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Learn what zaps your brain power and what you can do about it

Brain Power: Your prefrontal cortex the cause of focus.

Prefrontal cortex Focus & Working memory

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Have you ever put a note on your refrigerator or at your desk and within a week or less discover that you no longer see it? This is a representation of what happens when your working memory gets full. Working memory represent what you are able to focus on as a priority throughout any given day. As you add new things onto your plate and your working memory gets full, old things start to drop off.[1] It is as if you have 10 lines you can fill with to do items and once you add more than this the last one on the list falls off.  The part of your brain responsible for your working memory is your prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex gets easily overloaded and similar to a computer that is maximizing any available memory (RAM) it slows down to compensate. Unmanaged stress along with multitasking slows down your prefrontal cortex capacity tremendously. Multitasking in fact has been shown to decrease efficiency by 40%.[2] A full working memory is why it is easy to no longer see the note right in front of you or no longer have the capacity to focus on your goal no matter how important it is to you. If you want to increase your focus you have to ensure that your working memory is not overloaded.

What is the number one factor that decreases focus?

Stress clogs, clutters and overwhelms your working memory. This is why stress is the number one saboteur of making lasting changes. The mere nature of stress implies your working memory is already too full. This means you cannot access your ability to focus your attention on what you want for any lasting period of time. [3] The new neural pathways or freshly planted seeds of your goal will not have the proper environment to grow.  Neural pathways are the physiological basis of your habits of thinking, feeling and acting. They are why you do what you do. Donald Hebb’s landmark discovery in 1949, “neurons that fire together wire together,” best explains the process of forming, strengthening, and solidifying neural pathways. Each time you travel down desired pathways of thought, feeling, and action you strengthen them. [4] This is also why the habits you have had for many years are the most challenging to change. Every time you participate in an unhealthy pattern you strengthen it. If you have been living in a residual state of stress, you have been strengthening these pathways and creating a neural architecture of stress. What is more, stress won’t allow you to meet the prerequisites for change. When stressed, you access the oldest and least plastic part of your brain that literally repeats the past over and over. When you operate from this part of the brain, you are least likely to be able to change.

Expecting to follow through on your goals when stressed is like attempting to grow a garden that is filled with weeds. The weeds will easily consume all of the oxygen available that your new plants need to grow.  The weeds are the clutter in your mind and the stress in your life. You have to de-clutter your mind daily. In fact, you have to de-clutter several times per day in order to prepare the soil of your mind to grow the seeds of your new intentions and goals into strong, vital manifestations.  If you don’t de-clutter your mind, the weeds will overrun your garden of goals. Chronic stress will not allow you access to the motivation, inspiration and creativity needed to follow through on your desired change. Stress literally renders you neurologically incapable of creating stable new neural pathways. 

Feeling From the Past, Living From the Future

A second reason stress is the number one factor decreasing focus is due to the fact that your brain won’t give you access to the present moment when you are stressed. You can only access the past and how you have done things before. This is because when stressed the body and mind go into a conservation mode in order to ensure self-preservation. Conserving energy is a top of mind priority to getting through or ‘surviving’ a situation perceived to be stressful. Consequently, you will only have access to how you have done something in the past to deal with any present issues. For example, if in the past you had a habit of stopping by the fast food restaurant on your way home to soothe yourself from a long day, you will likely find yourself heading for the drive through without consciously thinking about it. Even if you catch yourself and remember your goal to eat healthier, it will likely feel highly compelling to still enter the drive through. It is as if some other part of you has taken over your mind. This is what happens when you are stressed and only have access to how you have done something in the past to deal with a situation in the present. Acting on a new strategy or dealing with something in a novel way takes too much time and energy. 

Is Your Working memory Full?

If your working memory is already full and you attempt to add your new goal items on your list (of to do’s) it is likely going to end in frustration and disappointment. This would be like attempting to save more data on your computer when your hard drive is already maxed out. No matter how hard you try to make your computer save your document unless you get rid of some items first you are not going to have the room for your new content. Also if, due to stress, you can’t expect to do better than you have done before, how can you expect to truly follow through on your goals? Following through on your goals requires changing the way you are doing something and acquiring new habits towards your desired objective. Decreasing stress and de-cluttering your mind are two prerequisite steps for focus and follow through.

Meditate to Declutter and Destress

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Meditation is the best practice we have found to declutter the mind and decrease stress. It also naturally increases focus, concentration, self-awareness, and relaxation. It’s an essential strategy for accessing the present moment, reconditioning the negativity cycle, and destressing the mind and body. When your mind is calm and clear, it’s receptive to new information, new perspectives, and new ways of dealing with unresolved problems. By taking up a meditation practice, you introduce into your life a powerful force for change. [1]

Decluttering a busy mind is a cleansing of the mind, body, and spirit. To make room for neural pathways of focus and happiness, you have to empty your mind and body of stress. Regular meditation is one of the easiest and most effective ways to release stress, calm the mind, and cultivate well-being. [1]

Meditation and Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the actual mechanism in the brain that meditation activates, which helps the body shift from the stress response to the relaxation response. Research shows that meditation increases gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex of meditators is actually larger than that of non-meditators. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were the first to discover that meditation alters the structure and function of the brain and specifically the prefrontal cortex. According to Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School,

Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. [2]

Meditation increases your ability to focus in the present. Studies comparing the brains of meditators with non-meditators have revealed key differences. Non-meditators have brain activity associated with higher distraction, racing thoughts, mind wandering, and poor concentration. The brain activity of meditators, on the other hand, correlates with present-moment focus, concentration, self-awareness, and self-control. In the present, you can typically deal with anything. [3]

How to Meditate

Numerous meditation practices elicit the relaxation response. Selecting a practice right for you is essential. To generate the multitude of health benefits associated with the relaxation response, the four conditions outlined by Benson are key criteria. Some examples of meditation practices include deep breathing exercises, focusing on a mantra, visualization, listening to soothing music, tai chi, gentle yoga, passive prayer, and chanting.

Four Guidelines for Meditation Practice

  1. Posture: Make sure your posture is comfortable. Most important, your spine should be comfortably aligned. Maintaining a good posture allows you to feel more energized throughout the meditation because your breath flows more easily and the energy centers in your body are more open and unrestricted.
  2. Breath: Breathe so that your abdomen expands as you inhale and gently contracts as you exhale.
  3. Mental focus: Select something calm, peaceful or neutral to focus on such as your breath, a relaxing word/phrase, beautiful scene or sensation.
  4. Time: 20 minutes is the most commonly recommended time frame for daily meditation practice.

Click here for a FREE Meditation to help you declutter your working memory and increase your focus!

Coaching & Counseling

Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series


  1. Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory?
    Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, (11): 417-423.
  2. Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.

A Heavy Working Memory Load May Sink Brainwave ‘Synch’

Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997b). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 2. Accounts of psychological refractory-period phenomena. Psychological Review, 104, 749-791.

  1. Duncko, R.; Johnson, L.; Merikangas, K.; Grillon, C. (2009). “Working memory performance after acute exposure to the cold pressor stress in healthy volunteers”Neurobiology of Learning and Memory91(4): 377–381. doi:1016/j.nlm.2009.01.006PMC 2696884 . PMID 19340949.

Lee, J. H. (1999). “Test anxiety and working memory”. Journal of Experimental Education67 (3): 218–225. doi:10.1080/00220979909598354.

  1. Hebb, D. (1949). The organization of behavior: A neuropsychological theory. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  2. Stokes, H. & Ward, K. (2014).The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness. San Diego: Bonsai Press
  3. Davidson, R. (2004a). Well-being and affective style: Neural substrates and bio-behavioral correlates. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1395–1411.
  4. Lazar, S., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R., Gray, J., Greve, D., Treadway, M., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B., Dusek, J., Benson, H., Rauch, S., Moore, C., Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893–1897.
  5. Brewer, J., Worhunsky, P., Gray, J., Tang, Y., Weber, J., Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254–20259. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112029108

Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feg, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M., Posner, M. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 17152-17156.


About the Authors

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Hilary Stokes Phd

Dr. Hilary Stokes is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in San Diego, California. Dr. Hilary received her PhD in psychology with a specialty in transpersonal psychology from San Diego University for Integrative Studies, a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University and a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from San Jose State University. In addition to her ….

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Kim Ward Phd

Dr. Kim Ward received her PhD in psychology with a specialty in transpersonal psychology from San Diego University for Integrative Studies. She also holds a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California. Dr. Kim is a certified trauma-informed coach and life coach in private practice in San Diego, California. In…

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