This is the week we heard about last month, the week in which ordinary life was to resume, the not-now-later-time, “after the chaggim.” The long holiday season is over. Kids are back in school. We’ve arrived at the time to refocus and pay attention – with our famously shrinking attention spans.
Social critics note that the way we live today degrades our ability to pay attention. We have become a distracted culture. Tweets and text messages mess with our collective mind, fragmenting it, relentlessly distracting us with pop-up ads, Facebook updates and search engine byways. Experts, authors and teachers advise us to resist these attention-whittlers, to cutback on technology and most of all, to focus, focus, focus!!!
They do have a point, of course. In order to complete a task or explore a subject in depth, one must be able to focus. There is a worldwide epidemic of ADHD, which can be a cruelly destructive disorder undermining learning, memory, job performance – and most painful of all – social relations.
Attention problems are real; they are serious, and they are widespread.
But not all distraction is negative. Let’s pause to consider the distinct cultural benefits to not paying attention.
Distractibility may facilitate “thinking outside the box”.
Researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard gave a short mental test of distractibility to 86 Harvard undergraduates. They were examining the students’ ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli, such as a nearby conversation or the hum of an air conditioner. The students who had more difficulty ignoring distractions turned out to be seven times more likely to have previously been rated as “eminent creative achievers.”
In another remarkable study, researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Memphis asked 60 undergraduate students whether they had ever won a prize at a juried art show or been honored at a science fair. They found that students diagnosed with ADHD achieved more in every domain!
It appeared that when it comes to creativity, the ability to not focus (or the inability to focus) can be an advantage.
The queen of non-focusing is daydreaming, which has an established correlation to creativity. Daydreaming seems to prime the pump for new and unconventional ideas. More surprisingly, studies have found that employees are more productive when they’re allowed to idly surf the Internet from time to time.
Deficits of attention can indeed be disabling; they require treatment and support. But attention excess is definitely not ideal, either. So when your mind begs for a break, don’t reach for Red Bull or a double espresso to whip your attention back in line. Stare out the window instead and let your mind roam a bit. The maximal mind is a flexible mind; a mind that can focus straight ahead on the road when necessary, but one that can also let go to ramble and wander off the path into unexplored territory.