Sunday, June 4, 2017

Real Deal #32: Why Unfocusing is Just As Important as Focusing


According to the Alternative Board’s 2017 Small Business Pulse Survey, 85 percent of entrepreneurs surveyed said they work 40-plus hours a week, and the majority felt that they were "too busy" to develop strategic plans for their businesses. As a neuroscientist who is also an entrepreneur, I don't find it hard to imagine why this hive of activity causes strategic thinking to fall by the wayside. Simply put, it overwhelms the brain.

The reason is that, entrepreneurs, feeling panicked, scramble to tune out all distractions and devote their undivided attention to each task on their list. But what if I told you this isn't the best thing you could do? What if I said you should instead doodle pictures of faces, geometric shapes, letters or some form of art -- gorgeous or obscure -- while you complete your tasks?

In fact, doodling activates the default mode network (DMN) -- the brain’s unfocus circuit. And, don’t let the word “unfocus” fool you, either, because the DMN is all action. When turned on, it becomes one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain, eating up a whopping 20 percent of the body’s energy at rest.

It is constantly shuttling memories back and forth and making connections that lead to creative insights and more accurate predictions -- all things an entrepreneur can cherish.

Furthermore, when the DMN is activated, your "self" metaphorically assumes center stage in the brain. In this state of self-connectedness, you become a far superior mirror of others’ perspectives, allowing you to better empathize with your clients and cohorts. Ultimately, with these deeper insights about yourself and others, your brain becomes a master predictor. It is better prepared to make clear, heartfelt, high-level decisions in the spur of the moment.


Harvard Business Review:
There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.

Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD): PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize the brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream or guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or lying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind while still doing the low-key activity.

Studied for decades by Jerome Singer, PCD activates the DMN and metaphorically changes the silverware that your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughts that you have, PCD commissions a different set of silverware—a spoon for scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership. I call this the psychological center of gravity, a grounding mechanism (part of your mental “six-pack”) that helps you enhance your agility and manage change more effectively too.

Taking a nap: In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider authorized napping. Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if it’s a creative task you have in front of you, you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations, and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. A recent column in Harvard Business Review highlighted the importance of “unfocusing,” and more specifically, the results of a study demonstrating something called the “stereotype effect.” What’s particularly striking about these results is that they portray creativity not as a trait that you either have or don’t have, but as something that can be shaped depending on the context.

No one is necessarily a “creative person;” creativity can really be harnessed by anybody, according to these results. By allowing that sort of underused part of the brain to do its thing, we manage to think and behave more creatively than we normally would.

In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this "psychological halloweenism."

Imagine the unimaginable: Making a mental movie of a desired outcome aids execution because imagery warms up the action brainMultiple studies confirm that training stroke patients to imagine moving slowed or paralyzed parts of their bodies can actually improve movement in those areas, especially when the patients concentrate intensely on those images.

De-stress: Stress cements bad habits in the brain and prevents people from embracing new patterns of thinking. Throughout history, it’s been known to cause even the most prolific business leaders to make unwise decisions on behalf of their companies. Try to identify, explore and dispel the stressors that often derail the brain. 

Yun RJ, Krystal JH, Mathalon DH. "Working memory overload: fronto-limbic interactions and effects on subsequent working memory function." Brain Imaging Behav. 2010 Mar; 4(1):96-108. doi: 10.1007/s11682-010-9089-9.

Denis Dumas and Kevin N. Dunbar. "The Creative Stereotype Effect." PLoS One. 2016; 11(2): e0142567.

Istvan Molnar-Szakacs1,2 and Lucina Q. Uddin. "Self-Processing and the Default Mode Network: Interactions with the Mirror Neuron System." Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 571. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00571.

Anna Abraham. "The World According to Me: Personal Relevance and the Medial Prefrontal Cortex." Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 341. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00341.


For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built doodling, PCD, 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.

More information:
» Entrepreneur: "Why Successful Leaders Should Find Time to Doodle"
» Entrepreneur: "Solving the Engagement Conundrum Through Brain Science"
» New York Mag: "In Praise of Spacing Out"

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