In an age where our attention is considered a new currency, a constant barrage of distractions make focusing on what’s important to us an endless challenge. Finding Focus, a new mobile app developed by a collaborative team of researchers from UC Santa Barbara and The University of Texas at Austin, operates on the premise that, just like any other skill, attention can be trained. Through its unique personalizable features, it guides users through mindfulness exercises that train their attention and reduce mind wandering. 

Jonathan Schooler, a professor in the UC Santa Barbara Psychological and Brain Sciences Department and principal investigator of the META (Memory, Emotion, Thought, Awareness) Lab, spoke on the iterative nature of the app’s development and the studies backing its efficacy. 

“The Department of Education granted us funds to develop this app for high school students to address the epidemic of mind wandering and distraction,” Schooler said. 

Having implemented it in over 100 high schools across the United States, the researchers have conducted a number of studies investigating the impact of Finding Focus on well-being and, in particular, mind wandering. 

Mind wandering is the experience of thinking about something other than what you’re trying to attend to or work on. For instance, if you’re writing an essay and find yourself disrupted with the thought to check on new messages — that’s mind-wandering. 

“In the past, we found that Finding Focus reduced people’s mind-wandering on the self-report scale,” Schooler said. “Study participants responded to general retrospective questions, such as, ‘How much are you mind wandering these days?’”

Dharma Lewis, a recent UCSB graduate and the current lab manager of META Lab, conducted her undergraduate honors thesis using an experience-sampling method that is more precise than retrospective self-reporting to investigate how Finding Focus affects mind wandering. 

“I had participants complete a sustained attention task, and I asked them a couple of different times throughout the task, ‘just right now, were you on-task or off-task?’” Lewis said. “The proportion of answers that they replied ‘yes’ to was the proportion of mind-wandering.”  

Random self-report pings provided a more accurate measure of mind-wandering. Lewis’ study found that participants who utilized Finding Focus as an intervention experienced a notable decrease in mind-wandering. 

In contrast, participants in the control group, who utilized the popular mindfulness app Lumosity as an intervention, showed no decline. The study also made use of a proxy behavioral measure of mind-wandering, which didn’t detect a change in mind wandering. Schooler acknowledged its imperfections, stating that it may have “confounded mind-wandering with inhibitory ability.” 

Facing the challenge of designing an app that appeals to high school students, Finding Focus has evolved through many iterations based on student feedback. 

“We’re trying to engage high school students who might very well be resistant to the standard focus on your breath type of meditation instructions,” Schooler said. 

To make the app more accessible, the app developers incorporated unique features. Its 10-day “bootcamp” style course offers brief and engaging tutorials that succinctly establish the value of mindfulness. 

Schooler emphasized the need for students to comprehend why training attention is essential. 

“We want them to understand, ‘why bother doing this in the first place?’” he said. “Attention is key to so many different things … If you can direct your attention, you can acquire the information that you need and ignore the information that you don’t.”

A potent anchoring metaphor illustrates how we may train attention. Users are prompted to imagine how when ships that are anchored drift away, their anchor catches them, pulling them back. Attention can be anchored in the same way. 

Additionally, rather than having users focus on the standard mindfulness activity of breathing, the app offers various musical genres — hip hop, indie/folk, chill electronica and relaxing — for users to anchor their attention to. The musical pieces were custom-made for the app, and each song is preceded by an introduction by the artist talking about how mindfulness is valuable to their everyday lives. 

The latest feature, Focus Sesh, allows users to set it up during tasks, like homework, 

periodically pinging them and asking if they were wandering or paying attention. If the user is paying attention, it adjusts and waits longer to ping them again. 

This feature aims at encouraging meta awareness, one of the main research focuses of the META lab. Meta awareness is one’s explicit contents of consciousness at any particular time.

“​People are mind wandering without realizing [it],” Schooler said. “They can be thinking about something completely unrelated to what they’re reading; [They’ll] be flipping the pages, and have this moment of ‘oh my gosh — I haven’t been paying attention to what I’ve been reading.’” 

The iterative journey of Finding Focus is far from over. The researchers plan to further explore the potential of Focus Sesh in research trials going forward. In addition, the researchers are excited about the possibility of implementing the application beyond high school and into college-level curricula. 

You can download Finding Focus for free in iOS and Android. Learn more about the app at findingfocus.app

A version of this article appeared on pg. 10 of the Jan. 25, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.