What happens to creative abilities when you focus your attention on just one thing?
Attention is a bit of a mystery when it comes to the science of how it actually works. Your senses are consistently taking information into the brain as neurochemical or electrical signals, millions of signals every second, where each signal is then staged through various sections of processing.
Your brain works in this amazing way to filter out signals that may not be important to your well-being – things like the color of socks a stranger is wearing – which means only factors that are seemingly important will make it to higher levels of thinking, everything else is almost completely ignored from our thoughts; and the brain does all of this without your consciousness having to do any of the work. Only inputs that truly matter make it to a higher level of thinking where they can be further processed.
Our ability to focus like this poses a few problems for creativity however.
When we’re focused on a task or an idea, we set a type of neurological filter for our brains to work with, ignoring anything unrelated to that core theme. Sometimes this unintentional filtering means we’re going to overlook potential ideas or solutions that may be just outside the scope of our task. Like looking through the lens of a camera and not seeing anything outside the frame.
This is a problem because creativity is, after all, partially the experience of connecting the previously unconnected, the bits you couldn’t see just outside of your scope. Focusing means we may never make the connection we need most. We may never see the truly interesting subject just outside of our frame.
Focus does play a positive part in the creative process, in that once we have our solution or “big idea” we can focus on it and adapt it or improve it or implement it, but when it comes to creative flow it’s important to have moments where lower level processing in your brain (the process responsible for less logical thought and lower level filtering) can let the signals in your brain flow freely. You don’t want to cut off potential options in the early stages of brainstorming, so focusing your attention early on will actually hinder your output.
The next time you’re looking for ideas or a creative spark, take a step back, try to defocus, and let your brain do what it does best: process everything.
Photo by Mark Hunter.