By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
Last week, I wrote about the parallels between quantum mechanics (QM) and mental focus. I got a lot of feedback, and I learned that a few ideas were not totally clear. So this brief post is dedicated to clarifying those ideas. Just like last time, no unexplained physics jargon here. This post is about parallels between two very different phenomena (QM and mental focus), not about trying to prove that QM is an explanation for mental focus.
I had said, “QM experiments show us that what actually happens depends on our perspective (the observer effect). How we choose to look at things affects the situation itself.” I mentioned that if your goal is to write a novel, and you focus on writing, you will see the situation as a series of writing tasks rather than a desired outcome (novel) and a series of undesired distractions. This perspective (focusing on the required action) makes it more likely for you to reach your goal than if you focused on the goal itself or the distractions.
One reader was concerned that people would think I was advocating for the idea that our minds fully create what happens. There’s this idea some people have that just by focusing on something, we can make it occur. Focus on a new car, then manifest a new car!
There is clear evidence that our mental attention can slightly influence physical reality (Radin, Michel, & Delorme, 2016). But it is not exactly what I’m saying.
What I am saying is that in QM, by shifting what is measured, the system changes, but it changes within its own physical limits. For example, it might go from a wave-like pattern to a more particle-like pattern, depending on how one is observing the system. But it won’t go from a wave-like pattern to a picture of Chairman Mao, at least as far as I know.
So I want to be clear here – I am saying that the parallel between QM and mental focus is that what is changing is an entire system, the project you’re working on and you, the focuser. There are certain limits that define what the system can change into, and although we cannot always know those limits, it is worth reminding yourself that it might not be your fault if you focused for 8 weeks on the work required to win a Pulitzer Prize and you haven’t received it yet! The work is to focus on the actions that are required for your goal. The time it takes for your goal to be achieved will be dependent on the nature of the system.
I had also said, “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).”
There was a bit of confusion with this idea as well. It seems that at first I’m suggesting that you focus on the actions that are required to get you to your goal, and now here I’m suggesting that you focus on something else.
Both points are reasonable, but what I should have mentioned is that these steps occur at different parts of the creative process. In fact, they also occur at different points in most QM experiments.
If you’re conducting a QM experiment and you want feature X of the system to continue having multiple alternative possibilities, you should not measure it. You could measure feature Y, maybe, but not feature X. That’s because measuring the system forces it into only one actualized alternative. But when you want to find out exactly what is going on with feature X, then you would measure feature X.
When we’re trying to be creative and get new ideas for a particular project, one of the best things we can do is to turn away from that project and focus on something else. That allows the ideas to continue on in the background, exploring possible alternatives. But once the project gets our attention with a creative idea that is ripe for action, things change. We have a new goal (to turn the creative idea into reality), and to reach this goal, we must focus on the actions that lead to it.
As reader Emin Khalafian wrote, “I’ve noticed that when I focus on tasks/projects at hand (while looking at other projects ‘from the corner of my eye’) it helps me put the other tasks in perspective, and I have more control of them when they’re ready to be executed (they ‘evolve without my control’).
Notice that Emin doesn’t say he is ready to execute the tasks, but that they become “ready to be executed.” This is a well-stated version of the observation that we and our projects are evolving systems, and together, using our mental focus skillfully, this partnership can bring something new (and hopefully wonderful) into being.
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused by listening the scientifically designed Cinematic audio channel, one of many such focus-inducing channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
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.
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