“Ineluctable modality of the visible.” So begin the musings of Stephen Dedalus in the third chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. “Signatures of all things I am here to read,” he continues.
To be clear, I haven’t read the book but I did see the 1980s children’s cartoon although that probably doesn’t count. It is, though, a pretty nice depiction of a mind at play (I recall my A-level study guide informing me!). Conscious of his own consciousness, Dedalus monitors his thoughts without reining them in. He’s at once focused and unfocused. Seemingly scattered ideas coalesce into patterns, into art.
Brain researchers call this state of mind ‘open awareness’, the science writer Daniel Goleman reports in his new book Focus. According to Goleman, it is a form of attentiveness characterised by “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind”. Experiments suggest it is also the source of our most creative thoughts.
I am paraphrasing here but we tend to think of attention as a switch that’s on or off — we are focused or distracted.
Well, Daniel reckons that’s a misperception. Attention comes in varieties and its extreme forms tend to be the most limiting. When we are too attentive we fall victim to tunnel vision. When attention is absent we just turn into scatterbrains. Open awareness lies in the fertile place between the poles.
But it is a place we seldom get to these days. Our smartphones and other networked gadgets allow us to jack into an unending supply of messages and alerts.
Some of them are important, some of them are trivial but all of them demand notice. The resulting “neural buzz” can easily overwhelm our ability to control our focus and be truly productive.
Now I am not knocking social media, which remains vital – we have moved from a world of persuasion to one of permission, and despite regulatory challenges (what’s new?) it remains a fantastic brand-building tool to grow your presence through sharing your experience and expertise openly (as long as it is done in a carefully selected and targeted way.)
What appears to be most at risk is our ability to stop. Do nothing. And let the mind go for a stroll. Because it is in this state when the most productive ideas and direction come from – creativity is fostered by tasks that allow the mind to wander.
Old Dedalus would have most probably been diagnosed with ADHD and stuffed full of methylphenidate to stem his stream of consciousness – unless Twitter got him first.