One evening, when I was about 16, we were playing a family game of cards and my mind must have wandered off as I was brought back to the room by my dad shouting “Jen…you are not concentrating, you never concentrate properly…”. He went on to rant about various times I didn’t concentrate and it all stuck with me rather too firmly, lodging itself as a belief for the next 25 years!
It’s taken me until 42 years old, but I have finally found some evidence against the global belief that “concentration is King and the key to intelligence/productivity/success”. (Please note that I also really understand the challenges of poor attention/concentration in various conditions such as ADHD and Brain Injury…but I am talking about regular brain function for now)
Have you ever noticed that the best ideas pop into your mind whilst you are showering or walking the dog? Actually it’s not just ideas that pop in during those times…I also start to remember certain tasks I had forgotten about! I have made sense of this by thinking that to allow new neural connections to start forming (such as an idea or vision for something) we need our brains to loosen their grip on what’s currently going on/being processed. It’s a bit like only speaking to your closest friends at school and holding hands with such a tight knit group, that no-one else can infiltrate, let alone make friends with you!
Neuro-science conceptualises this by the intricate ways various networks work together including the Attentional Flexibility Network , Reticular Activating System (RAS) and Latent Inhibition functions. Working with other systems, these give us the ability to screen or filter out stimuli and allow stuff in too! Cognitive Neuroscientist Sawyer carried out a comprehensive review of the Neuroscience of Creativity in 2011. One of his findings included how “Mind wandering” helps incubate ideas. He also advised how brief, “micro-incubations” occur even when we don’t know it’s happening. So, we can start to really appreciate the value of letting go a little and allowing our minds breathing space!
Mind wandering is one of the ways that we can allow expansion to occur and our thoughts to broaden and diverge. We need to allow in new stimuli and be “open to experience” but we also need to loosen our hold on our thoughts (and actions) sufficiently to allow the new stimulus to be seen and heard by our ever focussed minds.
Just as it’s vital to let our minds wander and allow wispy, loose connections to form, we of course need the reverse – we then need to then focus, converge on one idea or action. We need the order and discipline to then evaluate ideas or put plans in place. However it’s the pulling apart (expansion) followed by squashing together (focus/concentration) that allows us to move forward. I see this combination of squeeze and release, that provides forward momentum.
So, as Richard Fisher (2012) notes, when a deadline looms, instead of forcing yourself to concentrate, the best approach is to loosen your grip and take a break…be it a walk, a swim, or digging…even listening to jokes can help!
Sawyer (2011) The cognitive neuroscience of creativity: A critical review Creativity Research Journal.
Fisher R (2012) Dream a little New Scientist 16.6.2012