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.
[Srini Pillay, Harvard Business Review]
We’ve all experienced it. We grind away at a problem until we give up. When we leave our grindstone in despair and forget that it exists, inspiration strikes. If you’re like me, at that moment you ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”
There’s a simple answer. You didn’t lose focus fast enough.
It turns out that neuroscience is giving us permission to drop our focus. If we let our brain’s “Default Mode Network” take over, we can relax while it “activates old
memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas.” It’s like having a mental butler serve up ideas while we engage in positive constructive daydreaming, pretend to be someone else or take a nap. [Pillay]
Science has spoken. Besides, who would want to argue against naps and creative play?
If you don’t live by every word that falls from the lips of neuroscientists, there are other, more entertaining sources to confirm your bias that napping and play are good for you.
James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas made the same point in 1939 without the arcane references to the inner working of the brain. In the space of 5,600 words (only 280 20-word tweets for those who live on Twitter-sized crumbs) he told advertising executives how to generate ideas: do the detailed research about your product and then drop the problem. When the idea interrupts your relaxation, write it down and get back to work, refining and testing the idea.
Maybe Young got his idea from Proust. (Trigger warning: Remembrance of Times Past is the equivalent of nearly 60,000 20-word tweets.)
In trying to force his mind to recall something he wanted to picture, Proust’s Marcel failed ten times in succession.
And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.
And suddenly the memory revealed itself.
In the same way, he struggled to recall the appearance of towns he had visited, people he had met, music he had heard. Almost always, the recognition returned when he stopped dredging the river of his memories.
Filing away memories worked in a similar way. Here’s how Marcel came to internalize music he listened to:
…with regard to works we have heard more than once, we are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and finds that he can repeat it by heart next morning.
So take heart. Developing ideas, remembering, and learning all benefit from diversion and loss of focus. Need convincing? Skip the neuroscience and advertising executives. Lose yourself in Proust. Nap with his book in your lap. Your creative genius will thank you.