June 17, 2016
By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
I am up to my ears in arguments about the fundamental nature of reality, and I don’t understand much about that, but I know something about mental focus. I have just spent 48 hours in a conference on quantum mechanics at the Pacific Division of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). As one of three presenting women scientists in a room full of men, I had no chance to fall asleep – I felt fairly conspicuous. Fortunately, keeping on my mental toes allowed me to focus continuously on what was being said by the other scientists. As a result of this intense focus, I had some powerful insights. One of which was how the process of mental focus itself shares some similarities with some quantum mechanical phenomena.
If you think this is where I am going to start breaking out physics jargon, don’t worry. No Dirac spinors or beables here. And if you’re not familiar with those terms, you’re lucky. Quantum mechanics (QM) is a whole mess of crazy, but despite a wide variety of interpretations, some facts seem to consistently come out of QM, and I think these have parallels to the process of mental focus.
QM experiments show us that what actually happens depends on our perspective (the observer effect). How we choose to look at things affects what things seem to be. Of course, we all know that when we look at an object from the top, it looks different from when we look at it sideways. But these QM results are more extreme – at the subatomic level, how you measure a system seems to affect what that system actually is. It would be like if when you looked at something from the top, it actually was a frog but when you looked at it from the side, it actually was a shoelace.
Similarly, your perspective on the projects in your life –what you choose to focus on dictates what happens.
Here’s an example. Say you’ve got a screenplay that you’re hoping to finish by the end of the summer. Like all of us, you’ve got tons of physical, emotional, and social distractions. We all know what happens if you focus on the distractions. Your goal will likely not be reached, because the distractions will be dominant. But what if you focus on your goal? People say that kind of thing all the time, “focus on your goal” or “keep your eye on the ball.” But the problem is that when you focus on your goal, you may get very clear about your goal, but it doesn’t help you get there. It’s too abstract. Instead of reaching your goal, you may end up despairing as you find an ever-widening gap between your current progress and the goal.
But check this out — what if you focus on writing? Then you will see that the task is to take action – to write. You will see the situation as a series of writing tasks rather than a desired outcome (screenplay) and a series of undesired distractions. Your perspective has changed what happens, making it more likely for you to reach your goal as you focus on the action that that will get you there.
Adam Crabtree, a psychologist and human potential scholar, recently wrote an article about trance – which is directly related to what people are currently calling flow – a state of continuous focus on an object or task of interest. He quoted an observer of Pablo Picasso, who said about Picasso’s process:
“When daylight began to fade from the canvas, he switched on two spotlights and everything but the picture surface fell away into the shadows. ‘There must be darkness everywhere except on the canvas, so that the painter becomes hypnotized by his own work, and paints almost as though he were in a trance,’ he said” (Crabtree, 2016).
What is striking to me about this description is that the pure focus on the work hypnotizing the painter to create the painting. Similarly, the way QM is described seems to show that at the moment of observation (like at the moment of focus), things that were previously only possibilities now become actualities. Where before the observation a system could be in many possible states, after the observation, only one state is actualized.
Some people interpret this to mean that the action of observation itself creates the actual physical state of the system. In the language of mental focus, when we focus on a task, this focus might actually work to bring a project into being.
Finally, focusing on one task seems to allow other areas to develop. The realms we are not paying attention to can freely evolve as they sample alternative possibilities, creating new forms that later appear when we begin paying attention to them. In other words, if you want to be creative in your music, focus on your painting, your squash game, or your financial analysis skills. Creativity researcher Mark Beeman uses the analogy that if you want to see a dim star (glimpse your creative goal), it most often works to look out of the corner of your eye (don’t focus on it).
The QM parallel is that there are many more possibilities that can exist as compared to what actually does exist. What actually happens has the advantage that it is real and can be used in reality. But what is possible has the advantage that it can change, recombine, and make new things that you might not have gotten if you focused on it too early (forcing it to choose only one outcome).
So what is the take-home message of all this quantum mechanics talk?
(For further clarification of these ideas, please see part 2 of this post).
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed Classical audio channel created by Focus@Will labs.
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Crabtree, A. (2016) Hypnosis, Trance, and Human Evolution. EdgeScience 26: 3-7.
Susskind, L. (2016). The Theoretical Minimum: Quantum Mechanics. Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics. Retrieved 6/16/16: http://theoreticalminimum.com/courses/quantum-mechanics/2012/winter/lecture-1