Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

the dangers of focus?

Sam Anderson’s argument that “unwavering focus . . . can actually be just as problematic as ADHD” is the conclusion that follows from this paragraph:

My favorite focusing exercise comes from William James: Draw a dot on a piece of paper, then pay attention to it for as long as you can. (Sitting in my office one afternoon, with my monkey mind swinging busily across the lush rain forest of online distractions, I tried this with the closest dot in the vicinity: the bright-red mouse-nipple at the center of my laptop’s keyboard. I managed to stare at it for 30 minutes, with mixed results.) James argued that the human mind can’t actually focus on the dot, or any unchanging object, for more than a few seconds at a time: It’s too hungry for variety, surprise, the adventure of the unknown. It has to refresh its attention by continually finding new aspects of the dot to focus on: subtleties of its shape, its relationship to the edges of the paper, metaphorical associations (a fly, an eye, a hole). The exercise becomes a question less of pure unwavering focus than of your ability to organize distractions around a central point. The dot, in other words, becomes only the hub of your total dot-related distraction.

This is wrong-headed in a number of ways, but chief among them is this: there’s no good reason for focusing on a dot. The mind trying to focus on a dot gets impatient because a dot is neither interesting nor complex. The artistic achievements mentioned elsewhere in the essay — Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, John Lennon’s songs — were the product of intense focus on complex and multivalent tasks. Indeed, that’s why focus is so important for artists and other intellectual workers — and for that matter dancers and surgeons and bomb defusers: complex tasks demand a great deal of attention and if we lose any of that attention we do those jobs less well. (But at least the novelist can go back and fix things later; this is harder for the surgeon and especially for the bomb defuser.)

Besides, how many people are really in danger of “unwavering focus”? Many years ago I read a magazine profile of the chess champion Bobby Fischer in which the writer described an interview session they had over lunch. At one point the writer asked a question just as Fischer was lifting some food to his mouth, and the grandmaster ended up poking himself in the cheek with his fork. He simply could not do two things at once — a social problem, to be sure, but almost certainly a boon to his attentiveness to the chessboard. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so distracted by a question that you speared your cheek with a fork? If not, then you probably don't need to worry about the dangers of being too focused.


  • Tony Comstock said...

    I remember a documentary about the Korean War describing the North's human wave tactics that very nearly pushed the US off the peninsula. Where ever they encountered resistance they would flow away to areas of lessor resistance, and the US could not hold the line.

    That's the best analogy I can think of for how the 'unfocus' of the internet is helpful for marketing/pr/sales -- a huge volume of e-mail, blog posts, twitters, blog comments, etc, flowing away from resistance and towards opportunity. The key is moral, momentum, and not to get bogged down; and "internet fueled ADHD" can be helpful in this regard.

    Of course this is *exactly* the wrong state of mind for creating work that is worth putting all that marketing/pr/sales effort into. I used to think "artist retreats" were pretentious bullshit, but I've come around.

    I cannot hear what people say when I am typing, or I can hear them, but I can't process what they are saying. Makes my family crazy. Don't know how that rates compared to stabbing yourself in the cheek with a fork.

  • I can think of one good reason for focus on a dot: to practice concentration. This is somewhat similar to a meditation practice in which one continually returns his or her awareness of a specific thing, thought, or feeling to cultivate a more pointed focus.

    For me personally, I notice that when I have a dedicated meditation practice I am a much more effective writer and reader. Its like there are specific mental muscles that require focus and practicing one-pointed awareness keeps those muscles in shape.

  • I can think of some instances in which excessive attentiveness has been damaging to me. Like last night, when I stayed up until 6:00 to beat the last mission of a video game. It was complex, interesting, and man do I wish today that I had been a bit less attentive to it.

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