Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

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An even keel in attention reflects a mental mode where we simply notice whatever comes into awareness without getting caught up or swept away by any particular thing. Everything flows through. Those who have difficulty sustaining open awareness typically get caught up by irritating details like that person in front of them in the security line at the airport who took forever to get carry-on ready for the scanner— and will still be fuming about it while waiting for their plane at the gate. But there are no emotional hijacks in open awareness—just the richness of the moment. One brain measure for such open attention assesses how well people can track an occasional number embedded in a stream of letters: S, K, O, E, 4, R, T, 2, H, P.

Many people, it turns out, fix their attention on the first number, 4, and miss seeing the second, 2. Their attention blinks.


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Those with strong open focus, though, register the second number, too. People who are able to rest their attention in this open mode notice more about their surroundings.


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Their attention does not blink. The goal, he adds, is to be better able to engage in mind wandering when you want to, and not otherwise. But that was before I traveled with a smartphone, an iPad, and a laptop, and learned to like living in a constant stream of information and connection. That neural buzz adds tension to the demands of getting something done. Selecting one sharp focus requires inhibiting a multitude of others.

That takes cognitive effort. Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy. The antidote to attention fatigue is the same as for the physical kind: take a rest. Bui what rests a mental muscle? Try switching from the effort of top-down control to more passive bottom-up activities, taking a relaxing break in a restful setting.

But only certain kinds of bottom-up focus act to restore energy for focused attention.

Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Surfing the Web, playing video games, or answering email does not. We do well to unplug regularly; quiet time restores our focus and composure. But that disengagement is just the first step. What we do next matters, too. In contrast, a walk through a park or in the woods puts little such demand on attention.

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These moments seem fine for switching off intense concentration, bul open the way for the still-busy wandering mind-set of the default circuitry. The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive. This starts to happen when we gently arouse the sensory systems, which quiet down those for effortful focus.

Anything we can get enjoyably lost in will do it. Total, positive absorption shuts off the inner voice, that running dialogue with ourselves that goes on even during our quiet moments. Monasteries designed for meditation are typically in restful, quiet natural environments. Not that we need go to such extremes.

For William Falk, the remedy was simple: he stopped his work and went to play with his daughter in the waves. Fully alive. Growing up on a ranch on the outskirts of town he spent a lot of time alone, reading science fiction and tinkering with hot rods, his passion. The week before he was to graduate, a car sped past from behind as he was making a left turn into his driveway, smashing his small sports car to bits.

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He almost died. After recuperating, my friend went to the local community college, where he discovered a calling that riveted his attention and mobilized his creative talents: filmmaking. After transferring to a film school he made a movie for his student project that caught the eye of a Hollywood director, who hired him as an assistant.

The director asked my friend to work on a pet project, a small-budget film That, in turn, led to my friend getting a studio to back him as director and producer of another small film based on his own script—a movie that the studio almost killed before its release, yet which did surprisingly better than anyone expected.

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

But the arbitrary cuts, edits, and other changes the studio bosses made before releasing that movie were a bitter lesson for my friend, who valued creative control of his work as paramount. When he went on to make a movie based on another script of his own, a big Hollywood studio offered him a standard deal whereby the studio financed the project and held the power to change the film before its release. He refused the deal —his artistic integrity was more important. When he was almost done, his money ran out. He went looking for loans, but bank after bank turned him down.

Only a last-minute loan from the tenth bank he implored saved the project. The film was Star Wars. At the time, everyone who knew the film industry warned George against going out on his own. What allows people to have such a strong inner compass, a North Star that steers them through life according to the dictates of their deepest values and purposes?

Our subtle physiological reactions reflect the sum total of our experience relevant to the decision at hand. The decision rules derived from our life experiences reside in subcortical neural networks that gather, store, and apply algorithms from every event in our lives— creating our inner rudder. We know our values by first getting a visceral sense of what feels right and what does not, then articulating those feelings for ourselves.

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Self-awareness, then, represents an essential focus, one that attunes us to the subtle murmurs within that can help guide our way through life. This internal control mechanism makes all the difference between a life well lived and one that falters. Actually doing such a test for self-awareness in elephants is not so simple. For starters, you need to build an elephant-proof mirror. Try an eight-foot-by-eight-foot acrylic reflecting surface glued to plywood supported by steel framing, and bolted to the concrete wall of an elephant enclosure.

The researchers let the elephants get used to the mirrors for a few days. Then they put a large white X or the head of one or another of the elephants to see if she would realize she had a mark there—an indication of self-recognition. That adds a fair amount of debris to their skin, upping the odds that what we humans think of as a prominent mark might be trivial—just more of the usual detritus—to an elephant.

And, indeed, Maxine and Patty paid no attention to their X. But the day Happy got the big white X on her head she went over to the mirror and spent ten seconds looking at herself, then walked off—rather like humans when we glance in the mirror before going out to start our day. She then repeatedly felt around the X with the sensitive tip of her trunk, signifying self-awareness. Only a highly select few in the animal kingdom have passed this test, including some varieties of apes and chimps, and dolphins in an aquatic adaptation of the test.

These species, like elephants, are among the handful of animals whose brains harbor a class of neurons some neuroscientists believe are uniquely essential for self-awareness. Named for their discoverer, Constantin von Economo and called VENs for short , these spindle-shaped neurons can be double the size of most brain cells and have fewer branches—though much longer ones—connecting to other cells.

And their main locations in areas that connect the executive brain to the emotional centers position them as personal radar. These areas light up when we see our reflection in the mirror.

Book review of "FOCUS" by Daniel Goelman Focus

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. You may have seen the rather bizarre image of a body as mapped by the somatosensory cortex, which tracks the sensations registered by various areas of our skin: this critter has a tiny head but huge lips and tongue, teeny arms but giant fingers— all reflecting the relative sensitivity of nerves in various body parts. Similar monitoring of our internal organs is done by the insula, tucked behind the frontal lobes of the brain.

This lets the insula act as a control center for organ functions, sending signals to the heart to slow its beat, the lungs to take a deeper breath. Tune in to your heartbeat and the insula activates more neurons in that circuitry. How well people can sense their heartbeat, in fact, has become a standard way to measure their self-awareness. The better people are at this, the bigger their insula. The better we are at reading these messages, the better our intuition. A marathon runner tells me of a time she was on her way to a race four hundred miles away.

She felt that tug—and ignored it. But as she continued on down the freeway, it kept coming back. Then she realized what was tugging at her: she had forgotten her shoes! A stop at a mall that was just about to close saved the day. But her new shoes were a different brand from the ones she normally wore. Instead we do better to simulate what it would feel like to choose A versus B.

This brain area operates as that inner rudder. You know it in your joints before you know it in your head. And if no one tells us, we stay that way. Those self-ratings are checked against evaluations by a dozen or so people whom you have asked to rate you on the same scale. You pick them because they know you well and you respect their judgment—and their ratings are anonymous, so they can feel free to be frank. The gap between how you see yourself and how the others rate you offers one of the best evaluations you can get anywhere of your own self-awareness.

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One theory: That gap widens because as people rise in power within an organization the circle shrinks of others willing or courageous enough to speak to them honestly about their quirks. Whatever the reason, tuned-out leaders see themselves as being far more effective than do those they are guiding. A lack of self-awareness leaves you clueless. Think The Office. A degree evaluation applies the power of seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, which offers another pathway to self-awareness.


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A more sardonic view was offered by W. Our sense of self, in this view, dawns in our social interactions; others are our mirrors, reflecting us back to ourselves. His course gives students the chance to be in such a group.