The ability to unfocus

(I’m sure there are tonnes of literature and science on this topic that I don’t know of, so the purpose of this blog post is to reveal my ignorance by thinking out loud 😊.)

The ability to focus is such a universally esteemed virtue that there must be some catch. I came to believe it is desired more because it is difficult and unnatural—as everyone who tried meditation of some sort can assert—than it is actually so valuable.

For many time-critical tasks, concentrating your mind is, of course, essential. Sports and school exams are two examples (that are also, in a sense, artificial). But for the bigger and bolder ideas, however—those that we dream will change our lives and the world—I wonder what it helps to focus. The artificiality of settings where focusing is critical explains why it is challenging for many. Probably, the mind works better in a gentle stream of information; outside of your sensory-deprivation tank.

Screen caps from Stakker Eurotechno.

A typical element of the 90s club culture was the silent projection of a video unrelated to the music. It could be Stakker’s Eurotechno (then an already decade-old computer graphics video, originally with an acid house soundtrack) or Style Wars (an already 15 years old graffiti documentary). Even more extreme, I remember watching through an entire screening of Come Drink with Me (大醉俠) drowned out by techno in some long-forgotten Shanghai nightclub. The intention of this back then was probably to create a “multimedia experience” (a buzzword of the day). I think the reason it kinda works is more because of the human ability to parallel-process, than some artistic, synchronized stimuli of the senses. (I mean, it was not.)

“OK,” you say, “that’s because the brain can separate vision and hearing.” But I wonder. It feels like I can digest n = 2 zoom meetings in parallel. I wouldn’t be as sharp when commenting, but I think I’d get more than 1/n out of it. And maybe a high influx of information makes us susceptible to other types of insights? I give the final word to media theorist extraordinaire Marshall McLuhan (from an article in Playboy 😳 1968):

At IBM, a favorite slogan is “Information overload = pattern recognition,” or sudden structural awareness. A recent report about a dilemma in the Pentagon concerned the excessive influx of data collected by agents of the CIA and others. So great is the unread backlog that even the Pueblo can get lost in the IN basket. There is imminent danger of pattern recognition even in the Pentagon, the biggest filing cabinet in the world. The new Reading Dynamics or “high-speed reading” tends to build on the principle of overload as pattern recognition. The faster one reads, as every exam crammer has discovered, the more one perceives and the more one retains. (But, of course, there is the exception: “I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.”)

M McLuhan, The reversal of the overheated image, 1968.

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