An interesting realization came to me recently: I've never achieved a creative insight in a routine setting.
It’s a sobering thought. Think of all the time we spend in routine settings, engaged in routine activities. Consider the typical business meeting, for example. How often have you experienced a creative insight–from others or from yourself–during one of those meetings?
While traveling, however, I’ve experienced many fresh perspectives and generated quite a few new ideas. The more unique the travel destination, such as the Alaska glacier shown above, the more likely it’s been that I’ve arrived at important realizations.
The interesting thing is that I never go into those travel experiences expecting or needing creative outcomes. Rather, they seem to come naturally.
Why is it that we can find creativity on a simple walk through the neighborhood, but not in a business meeting where it might be most needed? Why is it that I find the trading floors among financial firms to be among the least creative settings I’ve encountered–so much so that traders and portfolio managers routinely concern themselves with “positioning”: the degree to which trade ideas are widely subscribed?
If creativity were simply an inborn trait or an acquired set of skills, setting should not matter so greatly in the generation of new ideas. When we look at business settings that are successful in cultivating creativity, such as those described by Ed Catmull of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, we find that they feature vigorous debate, laughter, and participation; research trips; and active experiments.
Even during meetings, participants actively move around the room, draw on boards, and try things out. In short, they are actively engaged, emotionally and physically. They are doing and feeling new things, and that helps them generate new ideas.Just like a trip to Alaska: creativity seems to be a function of fresh experiencing.
A provocative line of psychology research from James Averill, Ph.D. of the University of Massachusetts supports this notion. He has researched what he calls “emotional creativity”: the capacity to experience the world in novel, authentic, and effective ways. Creativity, he maintains, is not limited to the domain of ideas; it is expressed equally in our responses to people, places, and events.
Consider the artist who travels to a beautiful area of the world and experiences a vista with a sense of awe. The combination of clouds, sky, and mountains evoke for the artist an otherworldly sense that becomes the inspiration for a painting. In such an instance, the creative work is facilitated by an emotional creativity: the ability to experience the world distinctively.
Emotional creativity is hardly limited to artists. I recently met with a portfolio manager who was visibly excited about the opportunities in financial markets. I expressed surprise, as most market participants perceived few opportunities at that time. The manager exclaimed that this was precisely why he was excited:
In his experience, the consensus of the herd was never correct and now there was a market consensus–not about a trade but about an absence of trading opportunity! Perhaps not coincidentally, this occurred days before the Brexit vote and considerable dislocations in markets. He perceived the same lack of conviction as other money managers. What differed was his emotional response to the situation.
Averill makes the interesting point that emotional creativity may lie at the heart of spirituality, the ability to experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways. If we think about how we generate spiritual experiences, whether through the disciplines of meditation or yoga or through religious worship and practice, we can see that a common ingredient is a shifting of our focus and state of awareness.
If we wish to engage the world spiritually, we invariably exit our daily routines and cultivate distinctive states of consciousness. This is not so far from what happens in the creative business practices described by Catmull: we become more physically and emotionally engaged.
The implications are profound for the business world and for our personal lives. Much of what we do is structured to get things done efficiently by turning activities into habits and routines. Yet it is in the mode of habit and routine that we are least likely to be distinctively engaged with the world emotionally and physically.
Quite literally, our modes of physical and emotional engagement with the world are too dialed-down to generate the fresh perspectives that will enable us to adapt to changing markets and changing business landscapes.
We become better creative thinkers when we become more emotionally creative, and we become more emotionally creative when we actively engage the world in fresh ways. Whether in our careers or our relationships, new doing can catalyze new viewing.
While influencer marketing has become a mainstay for marketers, this doesn’t mean that marketers should start getting comfortable. As social apps start to integrate more creative functions to suit their users’ needs, an increasing number of users have started to become creators in their own right.
Anyone with a smartphone can create content, but those that create unique, high-quality content have risen to join the ranks of top influencers.
However, marketers often only consider partnering with ‘traditional’ influencers — influential tastemakers that usually have a large following. While these individuals may not necessarily create posts of high quality, their ability to leverage their fans makes them attractive to marketers seeking to promote their brand.
While creators can become influential and influencers do often create their own content, they aren’t one and the same. Marketers shouldn’t make the mistake of conflating them. Here’s why:
Influencers and content creators have different impacts on their audiences
Marketers increasingly understand the need to shift from ‘vanity’ metrics such as ‘likes’ towards engagement metrics such as ‘views’ and ‘impressions’. This also means that influencer marketing isn’t used just for the purpose of attracting eyeballs. Brands must engage the individuals that best suit their campaign objectives and KPIs.
For example, a beauty brand looking to raise brand awareness might engage a beauty influencer to create a sponsored post, then track impressions on their posts, or audience growth on their social media.
A YouTuber that uses the same products as part of a morning routine video or beauty challenge, on the other hand, can generate interest in your product that leads to greater click-throughs to your product page.
The main difference is that influencers act as an amplification channel for your content or product, driving awareness through reach, which can generate sales with the right target group.
Content creators, on the other hand, incorporate your product into their own content styles — be it beauty routines, funny challenges, or breathtaking photographs. These creators may not have a large following, but often have loyal audiences that are already interested in the form of content they produce. As such, they score greater points for relatability.
Think of influencer marketing as a form of brand partnership
Gone are the days when influencers are willing to plug your brand or product in exchange for free goods or cash. Influencers now hold greater accountability to their followers, meaning that it is imperative for them to be honest about sponsorships and create more authentic content.
According to Campaign, some factors that determine if a user decides to follow an influencer include how “real” their content is, how well-intentioned their posts are, and whether or not the content or products they endorse are in keeping with their usual style.
This means that influencers are likely to be more selective with the brands that they choose to work with. An influencer such as Liv Lo (@livlogolding), for example, builds her personal brand around her sustainable lifestyle and the use of environmentally-friendly, organic products. Liv Lo features cruelty-free skincare brands on her Instagram page and isn’t shy about criticising brands that aren’t as supportive of environmental initiatives.
Top influencers hold even greater prestige and control. Apart from being awarded ‘verified’ badges on platforms such as YouTube or Instagram that cement their status as top dog, high-profile influencers are being provided exclusive features that allow them to directly drive social commerce.
Last year, Snapchat invited 5 top influencers to gain access to their in-app store function, allowing these influencers to sell their merchandise straight from the app. Instagram’s Creator profile, which was initially beta-tested on a small group of users, now allows influencers and creators to have more flexible profile controls, access to a dashboard of performance metrics, and the ability to create shoppable posts.
Creators are also being recognised for their influence. Events like VidCon celebrate the unique achievements of video creators and educate brands on how they should navigate the changing influencer landscape.
It’s clear that marketers can no longer expect to mould an influencer to their needs. Instead, marketers must learn to accept that influencers and creators are their own mini-brand. A successful partnership, therefore, depends on aligning the needs and values of both parties.
Just like celebrity endorsements, influencer partnerships work well in the long-term
Influencer marketing should not involve too many one-off partnerships. As consumers seek out relatable, authentic content, “momentary endorsements” become less attractive to most brands and influencers. After all, consumers place less trust in influencers who readily promote a variety of brands.
Marketers should strive to create long-term partnerships with the influencers that they engage. While long-term partnerships generally reflect well on both the brand and its partner, these partnerships also help both parties solidify their fanbase.
Influencers who work with brands on a longer-term basis can leverage a variety of posts that better reflect their relationship with the brand over time. For example, an influencer is likely to attend events hosted by the brand, speak about related social issues, and review the brand’s products. If an influencer praises the brand’s offerings, their fans are more likely to believe them.
Brands that embark on long-term partnerships may also benefit from the influencer’s follower circles. These audiences are likely to relate the influencer with the brand and thus confer a sense of trust towards the products that they endorse. This also means that audiences are likely to feel a greater emotional connection with the brand, leading to more sticky customers.
Content creators, too, are valuable partners. Brands that make creators their partners can turn the artists’ style or content form into a part of their brand identity. This is especially true for organisations that manage recurring events.
Arts House Limited, for example, manages the Aliwal Arts Centre, which organises the annual Aliwal Urban Arts Festival. While the lineup for each year differs, the Urban Arts Festival consistently showcases local street dance crews and musicians. The festival has become synonymous with local street culture, while the Arts Centre has become the go-to venue for local indie dance and theatre shows.
Brands like Arts House Limited show a keen understanding of their own appeal and their audience’s interests. Likewise, brands that seek to effectively engage influencers as long-term partners must create campaigns that appeal to their key audiences.
Meltwater’s Audience Insight reports allow you to understand the communities that drive conversations on your social media channels. Our tool helps you to discover your audience’s consumption habits, analyse shifts in their demographic, and identify key influencers within these groups. You can then use these insights to determine the trends and topics that resonate with your audience.
To move ahead, brands must shake off old conventions
Now that we’ve highlighted the reasons why marketers should understand the value of both traditional influencers and content creators, it’s imperative that they formulate an influencer marketing strategy that includes both facets.
As the social media landscape continues to change and include newer apps, functions, and trends that steal the headlines, social media marketers too must adapt to make sure that they stay ahead of the curve.
Love as class content has applications for happier lives, writes Mark Wagner. (Getty)
About 15 years ago, I began teaching my college students about love. I had been teaching first-year writing, a course with no set curriculum, and I began to focus on the literature of love, in part enamored by Diane Ackerman’s essays in her book “A Natural History of Love.”
Over time, I’ve come to see that love is one of the most — if not the most — studied, written about and consequential subjects of human history. Students are exceedingly eager to talk about love and sex, family bonds and religious love, so much that I developed a first-year seminar called “Modern Love.” I added Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” and C.S Lewis’ “The Four Loves.” There is also wisdom literature, the courtly poets, scripture, and much else to draw on.
Engaging content in a classroom is a fun thing. (Students love our discussion of how the clitoris is the one organ, in all of evolution, designed strictly for pleasure.) But love as class content has applications for happier lives. Erich Fromm argues cogently:
The parable of Adam and Eve is not about shame of nakedness, but shame and guilt because of our separateness, our awareness of the distance from nature and from god and from each other. Understanding that we each come from a condition of separateness and loneliness, we can learn that the faculty of love — as opposed to object love — is one way to cope and connect.
Our experiences — the painful as well as the progressive — are rich material for young people and have a bearing on real life more valuable than writing three-page papers on etymology or theories of child development. As I say on my first day of the seminar, the single most important choice you will make in life is who you partner with, whether you marry or not.
As I say on my first day of the seminar, the single most important choice you will make in life is who you partner with …
Coddling iPhones and reading only in bits and bytes, watching television and learning about sex through sexting and porn, today’s students are raised in the vocabulary of heteronormative lifestyles. So, I have them present on the various models of love and marriage, including those from other cultures and times: polyandry, arranged marriage, polygamy, group marriage, triads, same-sex relationships — we discuss them all.
This fall, when a student told the class they had friends who were involved in a triad, we spoke about Fromm’s point that our focus on just one person limits and distorts our ability to love. Fromm suggests we cannot love if we do not feel love for all of mankind, including oneself.
For students of the digital age, coming out of a pandemic, this discussion on self-love is critical. Both Fromm (loosely) and Lewis (strictly) rely on “the ladder of love,” which originates with Plato. The ladder climbs from affection and friendship (which includes the love of animals) through familial love to romantic love and finally, agape — literally, in awe of creation and god.
This past fall, we read Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.” Two couples are conversing before dinner. Terri, in a second marriage with Mel, a cardiologist, recounts her first marriage, where her husband physically and emotionally abused her and then killed himself (he told her) out of love…Continue Reading..
The ability to control our dreams is a skill that more of us are seeking to acquire for sheer pleasure. But if taken seriously, scientists believe it could unlock new secrets of the mind
Michelle Carr is frequently plagued by tidal waves in her dreams. What should be a terrifying nightmare, however, can quickly turn into a whimsical adventure – thanks to her ability to control her dreams. She can transform herself into a dolphin and swim into the water. Once, she transformed the wave itself, turning it into a giant snail with a huge shell. “It came right up to me – it was a really beautiful moment.”
There’s a thriving online community of people who are now trying to learn how to lucid dream. (A single subreddit devoted to the phenomenon has more than 400,000 members.) Many are simply looking for entertainment. “It’s just so exciting and unbelievable to be in a lucid dream and to witness your mind creating this completely vivid simulation,” says Carr, who is a sleep researcher at the University of Rochester in New York state. Others hope that exercising skills in their dreams will increase their real-life abilities. “A lot of elite athletes use lucid dreams to practice their sport.”
And there are more profound reasons to exploit this sleep state, besides personal improvement. By identifying the brain activity that gives rise to the heightened awareness and sense of agency in lucid dreams, neuroscientists and psychologists hope to answer fundamental questions about the nature of human consciousness, including our apparently unique capacity for self-awareness. “More and more researchers, from many different fields, have started to incorporate lucid dreams in their research,” says Carr.
This interest in lucid dreaming has been growing in fits and starts for more than a century. Despite his fascination with the interaction between the conscious and subconscious minds, Sigmund Freud barely mentioned lucid dreams in his writings. Instead, it was an English aristocrat and writer, Mary Arnold-Forster, who provided one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions in the English language in her book Studies in Dreams.
Published in 1921, the book offered countless colourful escapades in the dreamscape, including charming descriptions of her attempts to fly. “A slight paddling motion by my hands increases the pace of the flight and is used either to enable me to reach a greater height, or else for the purpose of steering, especially through any narrow place, such as through a doorway or window,” she wrote.
Based on her experiences, Arnold-Forster proposed that humans have a “dual consciousness”. One of these, the “primary self”, allows us to analyze our circumstances and to apply logic to what we are experiencing – but it is typically inactive during sleep, leaving us with a dream consciousness that cannot reflect on its own state. In lucid dreams, however, the primary self “wakes up”, bringing with it “memories, knowledge of facts, and trains of reasoning”, as well as the awareness that one is asleep.
She may have been on to something. Neuroscientists and psychologists today may balk at the term “dual consciousness”, but most would agree that lucid dreams involve an increased self-awareness and reflection, a greater sense of agency and volition, and an ability to think about the more distant past and future. These together mark a substantially different mental experience from the typically passive state of non-lucid dreams.
“There’s a grouping of higher-level features, which seem to be very closely associated with what we think of as human consciousness, which come back in that shift from a non-lucid to a lucid dream,” says Dr Benjamin Baird, a research scientist at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And there’s something to be learned in looking at that contrast.”
You may wonder why we can’t just scan the brains of fully awake subjects to identify the neural processes underlying this sophisticated mental state. But waking consciousness also involves many other phenomena, including sensory inputs from the outside world, that can make it hard to separate the different elements of the experience. When a sleeper enters a lucid dream, nothing has changed apart from the person’s conscious state. As a result, studies of lucid dreams may provide an important point of comparison that could help to isolate the specific regions involved in heightened self-awareness and agency.
Unfortunately, it has been very hard to get someone to lucid dream inside the noisy and constrained environment of an fMRI scanner. Nevertheless, a case study published in 2012 confirmed that it can be done. The participant, a frequent lucid dreamer, was asked to shift his gaze from left to right whenever he “awoke” in his dream – a dream motion that is also known to translate to real eye movements. This allowed the researchers to identify the moment at which he had achieved lucidity.
The brain scans revealed heightened activity in a group of regions, including the anterior prefrontal cortex, that are together known as the frontoparietal network. These areas are markedly less active during normal REM sleep, but they became much busier whenever the participant entered his lucid dream – suggesting that they are somehow involved in the heightened reflection and self-awareness that characterize the state.
Several other strands of research all point in the same direction. Working with the famed consciousness researcher Giulio Tononi, Baird has recently examined the overall brain connectivity of people who experience more than three lucid dreams a week. In line with the findings of the case study, he found evidence of greater communication between the regions in the frontoparietal network – a difference that may have made it easier to gain the heightened self-awareness during sleep.
Further evidence comes from the alkaloid galantamine, which can be used to induce lucid dreams. In a recent study, Baird and colleagues asked people to sleep for a few hours before waking. The participants then took a small dose of the drug, or a placebo, before practising a few visualisation exercises that are also thought to modestly increase the chances of lucid dreaming. After about half an hour, they went back to sleep.
The results were striking. Just 14% of those taking a placebo managed to gain awareness of their dream state, compared with 27% taking a 4mg dose of galantamine, and 42% taking an 8mg dose. “The effect is humongous,” says Baird.
Galantamine has been approved by Nice to treat moderate Alzheimer’s disease. It is thought to work by boosting concentrations of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at our brain cell’s synapses. Intriguingly, previous research had shown that this can raise signalling in the frontoparietal regions from a low baseline. This may have helped the dreaming participants to pass the threshold of neural activity that is necessary for heightened self-awareness. “It’s yet another source of evidence for the involvement of these regions in lucid dreaming,” says Baird, who now hopes to conduct more detailed fMRI studies to test the hypothesis.
Prof Daniel Erlacher, who researches lucid dreams at the University of Berne in Switzerland, welcomes the increased interest in the field. “There is more research funding now,” he says, though he points out that some scientists are still sceptical of its worth.
That cynicism is a shame, since there could be important clinical applications of these findings. When people are unresponsive after brain injuries, it can be very difficult to establish their level of consciousness. If work on lucid dreams helps scientists to establish a neural signature of self-awareness, it might allow doctors to make more accurate diagnoses and prognoses for these patients and to determine how they might be experiencing the effects of their illness.
At the very least, Baird’s research is sure to attract attention from the vast online community of wannabe lucid dreamers, who are seeking more reliable ways to experience the phenomenon. Galantamine, which can be extracted from snowdrops, is already available as an over-the-counter dietary supplement in the US, and its short-term side-effects are mild – so there are currently no legal barriers for Americans who wish to self-experiment. But Baird points out that there may be as-yet-unknown long-term consequences if it is used repeatedly to induce lucid dreams. “My advice would be to use your own discretion and to seek the guidance of a physician,” he says.
For the time being, we may be safest using psychological strategies (see below). Even then, we should proceed with caution. Dr Nirit Soffer-Dudek, a psychologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, points out that most attempts to induce lucid dreaming involve some kind of sleep disturbance – such as waking in the middle of the night to practice certain visualizations. “We know how important sleep is for your mental and physical health,” she says. “It can even influence how quickly your wounds heal.” Anything that regularly disrupts our normal sleep cycle could therefore have undesired results.
Many techniques for lucid dream induction also involve “reality testing”, in which you regularly question whether you are awake, in the hope that those thoughts will come to mind when you are actually dreaming. If it is done too often, this could be “a bit disorienting”, Soffer-Dudek suggests – leading you to feel “unreal” rather than fully present in the moment.
Along these lines, she has found that people who regularly try to induce lucid dreams are more likely to suffer from dissociation – the sense of being disconnected from one’s thoughts, feelings and sense of identity. They were also more likely to show signs of schizotypy – a tendency for paranoid and magical thinking.
Soffer-Dudek doubts that infrequent experiments will cause lasting harm, though. “I don’t think it’s such a big deal if someone who is neurologically and psychologically healthy tries it out over a limited period,” she says.
Perhaps the consideration of these concerns is an inevitable consequence of the field’s maturation. As for my own experiments, I am happy to watch the research progress from the sidelines. One hundred years after Mary Arnold-Forster’s early investigations, the science of lucid dreaming may be finally coming of age.
How to lucid dream
There is little doubt that lucid dreaming can be learned. One of the best-known techniques is “reality testing”, which involves asking yourself regularly during the day whether you are dreaming – with the hope that this will spill into your actual dreams.
Another is Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming (Mild). Every time you wake from a normal dream, you spend a bit of time identifying the so-called “dream signs” – anything that was bizarre or improbable and differed from normal life. As you then try to return to sleep, you visualise entering that dream and repeat to yourself the intention: “Next time I’m dreaming, I will remember to recognise that I’m dreaming.” Some studies suggest that it may be particularly effective if you set an alarm to wake up after a few hours of sleep and spend a whole hour practising Mild, before drifting off again. This is known as WBTB – Wake Back to Bed.
There is nothing particularly esoteric about these methods. “It’s all about building a ‘prospective’ memory for the future – like remembering what you have to buy when you go shopping,” says Prof Daniel Erlacher.
Technology may ease this process. Dr Michelle Carr recently asked participants to undergo a 20-minute training programme before they fell asleep. Each time they heard a certain tone or saw the flash of a red light, they were asked to turn their attention to their physical and mental state and to question whether anything was amiss that might suggest they were dreaming. Afterwards, they were given the chance to nap, as a headset measured their brain’s activity.
When it sensed that they had entered REM sleep, it produced the same cues as the training, which – Carr hoped – would be incorporated into their dreams and act as reminders to check their state of consciousness. It worked, with about 50% experiencing a lucid dream.
Are you finding it harder than ever to concentrate? Don’t panic: these simple exercises will help you get your attention .
Picture your day before you started to read this article. What did you do? In every single moment – getting out of bed, turning on a tap, flicking the kettle switch – your brain was blasted with information. Each second, the eyes will give the brain the equivalent of 10m bits (binary digits) of data. The ears will take in an orchestra of sound waves. Then there’s our thoughts: the average person, researchers estimate, will have more than 6,000 a day. To get anything done, we have to filter out most of this data. We have to focus.
Focusing has felt particularly tough during the pandemic. Books are left half-read; eyes wander away from Zoom calls; conversations stall. My inability to concentrate on anything – work, reading, cleaning, cooking – without being distracted over the past 18 months has felt, at times, farcical.
The good news? We can learn to focus better, but we need to think about attention differently. It is not something we can just choose to do. We have to train the brain like a muscle. Specifically, with short bursts of daily exercises.
Dr Amishi Jha is a professor of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Miami and an expert in the science of attention. She has written a book called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, a four-week training programme based on her research showing how simple mindfulness exercises carried out by people with high-demand jobs, such as soldiers, elite athletes and emergency medics, improve many aspects of cognitive and emotional health, including strengthening our attention.
‘Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,’ says Dr Amishi Jha. Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian
When I first opened Peak Mind, I set a timer to see how long it would take me to feel the pull of social media. Three minutes in, I check Twitter. I tell Jha this and she erupts with laughter. “Oh, that’s fantastic,” she says.
I tell her this distractibility has made me anxious. She nods patiently. “There is nothing wrong with your attention, even if you feel more distracted right now. That is a healthy response to your current situation. To think otherwise is just false,” she says. “We’re in a crisis because our attention works so well. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: respond powerfully to certain stimuli.”
Stress is one of the biggest obstacles to focusing, says Jha. In a high-alert state, we often start ruminating and catastrophising. We get stuck in “loops of doom” or imagined scenarios. This mode impacts our “working memory”: the amount of information that can be held in our minds and used for a task. For example, choosing the words to put together in an email, or reading a page in a book.
“Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,” says Jha. When that whiteboard is full of thoughts, feelings and images relating to what’s making us stressed, there is no room for new information. We might start blanking, zoning out or snapping at our partners, then feel guilty, which makes focusing even harder.
The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention
Jha began thinking differently about mindfulness when she experienced her own “crisis of attention” (“a blaring, unrelenting onslaught of mental chatter,” she writes) that reduced her ability to feel present with her small children.
So she came up with some simple practices “that exercise the brain in ways that it is prone to being weakened”. These short bursts of mindfulness training each day can help us notice the traffic of our thoughts and urges, and develop what Jha calls the “mental muscle” to observe, rather than act.
I admit that I am sceptical. Even as a trainee psychotherapist (with a vested interest in learning to be present) I find it hard to believe that something so stark, that we can do by ourselves, can help focus a mind that feels scrambled by multiple lockdowns, political divisiveness or economic uncertainty.
I start by setting a timer for three minutes each day, instead of the recommended 12 – a smaller “dose”, encouraged by Jha, to get used to it. The first exercise involves sitting upright, closing your eyes and focusing on where your breathing feels most prominent, usually in the chest or diaphragm. Direct your focus here like a beam and notice when thoughts or sensations pull it away: a memory bubbling up; a reminder that you need to reply to a text; an itch. The point is noticing when the “flashlight” moves, then moving it back. That’s it.
From the beginning, this flashlight image is one of the most useful mindfulness tools I’ve used. After three days, I start to notice when I am being pulled away from trying to focus on something (reading is trickiest for me). I am noticing when my focus is ruptured, which feels new.
The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth, says Jha: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention. You have to practise. “The notion of an unwavering mind is a fantasy,” she says. The problem is that we now have far more sources of distraction. We are not just recipients of content, but willing participants. Despite how often we are encouraged to “unplug” from our devices, we cannot outwit the algorithms designed by armies of software engineers, statisticians and psychologists.
More unsettling is how we need our phones to rescue us from our phones. The global mindfulness meditation apps market size is expected to reach over $4.2bn by 2027. But in stepping back and learning why our attention can feel so slippery – rather than reaching for another attention-sucking app – perhaps we can assuage some of the difficult emotions associated with being distracted.
In week two, Jha introduces the “body scan”. Using the flashlight to move through the body, from toes to scalp, you are encouraged to notice what physical sensations are there. Whenever the mind wanders, return it to the area of the body where the attention was before the wandering.
Even in three-minute bursts, my mind fizzes with words, people, places and feelings. I tell Jha that I have to move my flashlight back so many times, I wonder if it will ever feel easier. “You’re doing great!” she says. “You have introduced something new and it can take time to get used to it. But know that it will get better.”
After a fortnight of doing the exercises, I notice that being able to carve a little sliver of space between myself and the contents of my mind means I am able to divert my attention back to what I need to do more easily. The body scan exercise has given me a new awareness of how distracted I am by physical sensations (a cramp; a gurgle; an itch). It is hard to explain how significant this layer of awareness is unless you’ve tried it.
I am going to carry on with the exercises, with a view to building up to the 12-minute daily dose, because something is shifting in my relationship with my thoughts. I begin another book after I finish Jha’s and reset my timer. It takes me 23 minutes to open Twitter. That’s progress.
Attention, please: five ways to focus better
1 Pay attention to your breath, and where on your body you feel it most: direct your focus like a beam of light. Do this for three minutes a day, for a week.
2 Integrate this technique into everyday life – for example, brushing your teeth. If you’re thinking about your to-do list as you’re scrubbing, bring the light back. Focus on the sensations.
3 A lot of people report that their mind is “too busy.” Your job is not to stop it – your job is to exist with it, and to place your attention back where you want it.
4 Ignore “mindfulness myths”: you are not “clearing your mind.” This is an active mental workout.
5 There is no “blissed-out” state you are aiming to experience; in fact, the whole point is to be more present to the moment.
section.47 Neuroscience 2nd ed. Dale Purves, George J. Augustine, David Fitzpatrick, Lawrence C. Katz, Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, James O. McNamara, S. Mark Williams. Published by Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2001.