Home » Writing Advice » Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus

Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus

15 May 2017

From The Harvard Business Review:

The ability to focus is an important driver of excellence. Focused techniques such as to-do lists, timetables, and calendar reminders all help people to stay on task. Few would argue with that, and even if they did, there is evidence to support the idea that resisting distraction and staying present have benefits: practicing mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, for example, can enhance leadership effectiveness by helping you become more able to regulate your emotions and make sense of past experiences.  Yet as helpful as focus can be, there’s also a downside to focus as it is commonly viewed.

The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.

So what do we do then? Focus or unfocus?

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

. . . .

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

Link to the rest at Harvard Business Review

Writing Advice

4 Comments to “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus”

  1. Tighter and tighter circles until you’re chasing your own tail, climbing your own back, looking over your own shoulder.

    Pure Zen, focusing so hard that nothing can come into focus.

  2. Playacting – being someone else for a while – is one of the great gifts of reading.

    But it is even a bigger gift to the writer – who gets to control it exactly as she wishes. To put on the ‘Egger suit’ for a while, and clomp around as Egger.

    You don’t get as many characters – you can read so much faster than write – but you do get in as deep as you want.

  3. I don’t know anything specifically about “mindfullness” which to me seems to be just the current Western buzzword as regards the general issue of mental/spiritual health.
    I do know quite a bit about more traditional — ie dating back thousands of years — methods of meditation, which to my mind, and in my experience, are far more organic and effective than what I understand about mindfullness. Meditation in this sense means turning the mind — which by habit is always turned outwards, to the things of the world, — inwards, towards oneself, towards its very source. The result after some years of practice should be the ability to find stillness and even silence inside oneself — a kind of resting in oneself that combines intense focus as well as intense awareness and intense openness to everything “out there”. This is also the condition out of which I write my novels. I started when I was 45 and they have kept coming ever since, quite spontanseously. The mind knows what it is doing. It enjoys the act of creation.

  4. This reminded me of what I thought was a relevant verse out of Ecclesiastes:

    Ecclesiastes 12:12 KJV
    And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.