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If you’ve ever done mindfulness of breathing meditation you’ll know that, when you try to focus on your breath, there’s likely to be an unending stream of thoughts and images bubbling up from somewhere deep in the brain, interfering with the task at hand. Your mind may replay bits of social interactions, rehearse conversations, make plans or come up with any number of concerns. It’s no use getting annoyed about it: that’s what brains do.
Although the details are still being filled in, we’ve heard a lot lately about the brain’s default mode network, active during what we call “mind-wandering”. Various studies have shown that, on average, mind-wandering is correlated with unhappiness. “A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” say psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.
The subject has also been addressed by Daniel Goleman, of “emotional intelligence” fame, in his recent book Focus. Goleman distinguishes between a bottom-up attention, issuing from the older part of the brain and constantly scanning and updating our picture of the internal and external environment, and a top-down attention that issues from the neocortex and exercises “executive control”, helping us to stay focused on a task and screen out distractions.
Some people are better and some worse at applying such control. The good news is that even if concentration is not your forte, it can be learnt, says Goleman. Mindfulness meditation, for instance, is very good training: by catching yourself mind-wandering and then returning to the breath, you build up your “attention muscles”. It doesn’t have to be meditation or breathing: for training purposes it doesn’t matter too much what you apply your attention to.
But, as Goleman and others point out, we’d be wrong to think that mind-wandering is always a waste of time. This is often when novel connections are made and creative insight happens. We should avoid being slaves to our minds but can welcome some wandering as positively beneficial.
Photographers know two truths about focus that apply so clearly to the rest of life that there is no need to translate the metaphors. First, focusing on what is close-up often requires leaving what is further away less than razor sharp, and vice-versa. Second, when you zoom in on anything, you lose sight of a lot which is left out of the frame. Zoom out to the most expansive view, however, and the price you pay for a clear panorama is loss of detail.
Put these two truths together and it becomes evident that the tight focus required by specialisation comes at a heavy cost – though it seems to be a price we are more than willing to pay. Observed from the long view of history, research and learning in the sciences and humanities now look extremely narrow. There are few whose expertise in any subject is not limited to one aspect of it, defined by their professional domain. So, for example, there are experts on the policing, sociology, anthropology, psychology, neurology, politics, philosophy, evolution, economics or biology of crime but few, if any, who bring these perspectives together.
It’s true that there are some interdisciplinary conferences and projects but even they derive legitimacy from the idea that only those with a specialised discipline are allowed to come to the party – and they keep off each other’s turf. Anyone who attempts a more synoptic view is usually shot down. It is as though every piece of a jigsaw is owned by a different person, each of whom refuses to allow it to be joined to others for fear that, in the finished puzzle, it will not receive the attention it deserves.
I think this is the tragedy of contemporary academia. I’m glad that some people have a narrow focus and so spot the important details generalists miss. But there should be more space for those who attempt to join the dots. We need both close-ups and landscapes, a wide and narrow focus, if we are to see all that needs to be seen.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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