There’s a part of the 1997 movie Deconstructing Harry where the character Mel, played by Robin Williams, starts getting more and more fuzzy contours. Quite simply, he’s out of focus.
Which is a real problem since Mel’s an actor and he’s starring a big production. The crew first thinks there’s something wrong with the cameras but eventually has to send Mel home to get some rest, hoping he’ll be sharp again after a good nights sleep.
It’s a funny scene, and like all good comedy it’s also rich with subtext. Our society place great value in the ability to stay focused. It’s what we’re taught as we grow up. Later it’s what expected from us at work.
But neuro-science clearly tells us that our brains are built to toggle back and forth between sharp and fuzzy. Proper learning and clear thinking can only happen in the interplay between diffuse daydreaming and focused attention (in neurological terms, switching between activating the brain regions called the “default mode network” and the “central executive network”).
Barbara Oakley is one big proponent of this type of mental oscillation, a theme that forms the backbone of the mooc Learning how to learn, which is one of the most successful classes ever on Coursera.
An earlier evangelist was Sigmund Freud, who suggested that therapists nurture a mode of consciousness where attention was suspended half ways between diffusion and focus, in order to maintain a readiness to pick up any random clue and start playing around with it.
Freud’s underlying assumption was that the patient rarely knew the true reasons for being in the room, so listening too carefully to what’s actually/litteraly being said is often counter-productive.
There’s something in that philosophy that appeals to me and I have a feeling it’s applicable far outside of psychoanalysis.
Take entrepreneurship. It’s a sad fact that most initiatives fail, but it has little to do with lacking ability to execute. Instead I think the most common error mode has to do with pursuing the wrong goals.
To mitigate that risk, we have to find ways to unfocus.