Attention, Body Awareness and Space – Part 2
August 6th, 2013, Posted by admin |  2 Comments »


Kurt I know that there is a lot of talk these days about multitasking, attention and computer use and I know you think Open Focus theory has a lot to add to the debate.



Almost every day there is something in the news about multitasking.  People are noticing through their use of technology, including mobile devices, that they are becoming increasingly distracted.  When you have multiple screens open at a time, and multiple devices, this can create problems.  There has been a lot of press coverage and articles like Nicholas Carr’s The Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” There is a big debate between two camps about whether we can multi-task at all. The debate is between one camp who say, well let’s just get with the program, we are in a new era, we can take in all these inputs and we can be fine. They are usually of the opinion that people who have grown up with the technology, the so called digital natives are more comfortable with multi-tasking.  Other people feel that it is not a natural thing people can do well, and that multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.  Quite a few studies have shown that what people normally think of as multi-tasking it is not multi-tasking but task switching which means quickly going from one task to the other.  Susan, we talked about that in one of our interviews.  People are really very narrow focused, and they go from one thing to another. They are not really taking in multiple things at the same time.  The studies are clear that performance suffers across the board when you engage in this type of task switching. Another surprising finding was that among the college students tested, the ones that self-identified as being good multi-taskers were actually the worst. Instead of improving at multi-tasking as you do it more people actually saw their abilities decline. 



Sometimes people come to the office and they say they are already in open focus ––“I see everything, I can see the spider on the wall,” and they are really doing sequential attention rather than simultaneous.  I interrupted you. 


You were talking about how Open Focus™ can be applied to this situation, to multitasking.



I think if people understand the Open Focus™ theory of attention, it can be very helpful.  I will give a quick outline of the theory. There are four styles of attention, narrow, objective, immersed and diffuse. Any of the attention styles can be use alone or in any combination, including all at once.



Below is a Venn diagram I came up with that gives some idea of overlapping nature of styles of attention we are capable of.


Styles of Attention Diagram


The two types of attention that we use all the time online are Narrow-Objective focus and Narrow-Immersed focus.

To explain narrow focus we often use the example of using a flashlight in a dark environment. Wherever you point your flashlight is what is illuminated to the exclusion of everything else. The objective focus part is something we take for granted, the bird in the tree, the squirrel on the ground – whatever is being illuminated is viewed as a separate thing. This Narrow-Objective focus is usually what we mean by paying attention both in our daily lives and when we are online.


Narrow-Immersed focus is when we are completely merged with our activity, like playing music or a game. Online gaming would be an example of this kind of attention.  Narrow-Immersed focus is similar to the concept of flow proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  He has defined flow as a completely focused motivation and a single-minded immersion. 


Diffuse focus is the attention style that is not in anyway reinforced or encouraged in our online activities. We really need a strategy to bring in the diffuse style of attention.  Of course taking a bio break is helpful, this tends in most cases to naturally open the aperture of our attention. But sometimes it’s not convenient or possible to take a break.  There are things you can do attention wise to help.  In the “Open Focus™ Brain” there is an exercise that as you are reading the page, you start seeing the space between the lines, and between the letters. This introduction of space helps bring in a diffuse style of attention to the mix.  Taking that a step further, an easy exercise is to become aware of the space between you and the computer screen.  It brings you out of being narrow-objective focused on something that’s on your screen.  The same thing is possible with the reading exercise – you can continue to work and maintain the feeling of space between you and the screen. It doesn’t have to be done for long periods of time but done as a series of mini breaks it can be very helpful.



Lets get back to multitasking for a second.  We have said that task switching is not multitasking. Is there anyway of paying attention that could be considered multitasking? Open Focus™ attention theory posits that you can pay attention in multiple attentional styles at once. In fact, the definition of Open Focus is paying attention in all four attentional styles at once.


One of the best examples of this type of multi-tasking attention is playing in a Symphony Orchestra. As a member of the orchestra you are focused in a very narrow-immersed style of attention on the part you're playing.  At the same time you're focused in a very objective way on the orchestra's conductor while also keeping an open-diffuse awareness of the other players in the orchestra . So really all four styles attention are used once: objective, narrow, diffuse and immersed.


In his book "The Master and his Emissary," Iain McGilchrist speculates that the ability to simultaneously pay attention in both a narrow and diffuse way is built into our brains by evolution. He gives an example of a bird narrowly focused on a seed its about to eat on the ground while at the same time keeping a diffuse scanning type of attention on the lookout for predators.



Using multiple styles of attention or taking in more than one stream of information, works best where it’s centered around some central theme, where you are able to use an immersed and diffused attention very effectively, like being in a play or an orchestra or doing a sport.  In that way, when people talk about multi-tasking they are right, but when applying it to our technology and online activities we are mainly in a task switching narrow-objective focus mode.



Absolutely.  And you can learn to do all these tasks within an Open Focus™ sphere, within a diffused focus so that you can take in more at the same time.  


Continued in part 3

Share this Post

2 Responses to “Attention, Body Awareness and Space – Part 2”

  1. M says:

    What happened to parts 1 and 3 of this article?  Don't see any links.

Leave a Reply