Work Out Your Attention for Better Ideas

The dual nature of attention and how to profit from it

Tuan Lima
Tuan Lima
Aug 20, 2020 · 4 min read
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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

The nature of attention and its relation to the frequency and quality of the ideas we get has been on my mind for a year or two. It feels like common sense to say that to have ideas we need time and processing resources at disposal. In other words, the mind wanting to bring something new to the world must be able to focus on a subject of interest, then through questioning it, come up with an insightful fact about its existence.

My experience shows, and I strongly expect it resonates with yours, that the process is not as straightforward as that. It is often the case that not focusing on anything in particular and minding one’s business with a totally uncorrelated activity will provide the environment that is most fertile for conceiving something new.

Looking in perspective through my past day jobs, I can tell that the most challenging moments of my professional life were also the time when I could feel the new stuff was brewing inside me. Unfortunately, those were not moments of self-satisfaction. The fact that I did not have the time I needed to do what I liked only increased the pressure over my situation, which in turn made my organism respond creatively.

How is it possible that our minds can betray us in that way? In the realm of ideas, an explicit search doesn’t work as effectively as a mindless and uncommitted investigation. How so?

Iain McGilchrist presents in his book The Master and His Emissary an interesting take on attention and how it interfaces with our perception of the environment. The following passage, taken from his book, contains the interesting case of birds and how their attention is divided into two distinct forms:

“There is a need to focus attention narrowly and with precision, as a bird, for example, needs to focus on a grain of corn that it must eat, in order to pick it out from, say, the pieces of grit on which it lies. At the same time there is a need for open attention, as wide as possible, to guard against a possible predator. That requires some doing. It’s like a particularly bad case of trying to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time — only worse, because it’s an impossibility. Not only are these two different exercises that need to be carried on simultaneously, they are two quite different kinds of exercise, requiring not just that attention should be divided, but that it should be of two distinct types at once.”

For McGilchrist, the separation into a highly-focused, exclusive kind of attention and a broad, general kind of attention is also a hallmark of human beings. For him, the attention division can be mapped to the hemispheric division of the brain, where focused attention is characteristic of the left-hemisphere and non-focused attention is a feature of the right-hemisphere.

Both hemispheres are active all the time, but their association with the ego (our conscious perception of ourselves) varies. Activities that require precision and analytical thinking tend to engage the left-hemisphere — examples of such activities are drawing a straight line, puzzling out a math problem, or edition of written material.

On the other hand, the right-hemisphere tends to be engaged by activities that require broad assessment of different skills — examples are face recognition, contextual analysis, or appreciation for painting.

The nature of focused attention is of restriction and goal orientation. When a writer is facing a blank screen, chances are that it’s precisely that mode of operation he or she is on. It’s not hard to imagine such a scene, so common it is on the writing milieu.

Non-focused attention, on the other hand, suits much better the intents of those trying to come up with something they don’t know yet what it is. The right-hemisphere is better in accessing memory and crossing information from different fields of knowledge, as suggests the aforementioned author.

As a counter-example to the black screen block, it is commonplace to intuit that if there ever is a moment for having ideas is precisely when the mind is not engaged in doing so. The image that comes to mind of eureka moments is of walks, showers (Arquimedes), exercises, or even casual conversations.

The advice goes of itself. If we incorporate this insight into our daily attempts to have better ideas, we will be spending less time in dead-ends trying to force something that is not supposed to come because we are not asking for it properly.

We will be better off in the matter of ideas if we stop forcing it on writing time. If we are short of ideas there’s plenty to do about it, least of which is concentrating on the very fact that we need so desperately something new to write.

When needing an idea, try mindless activities. Sports, meditation, non-related work, and reading are all supposed to help, as long as you don’t spoil it with your preoccupations and stubborn concentration.

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