The instinct to tighten and focus our attention may help in situations that resolve quickly or that require fast action—like an oncoming car. It’s less help in complex, nuanced modern life. By narrowing our attention, we can get hooked on a detail rather than seeing the broader context.
— Doug Kraft, Buddha’s Map
Have you ever played with the focal length of your eyes?
I have frequently, adjusting it so that things come into and out of focus. It’s a fun game.
Have you ever played with the focal length of your mind?
I’m going to write about focus. Not blurry and clear, really. More in frame and out of frame. And I’m not going to be writing about the eyes so much as about the brain that sits behind them.
Most of the time, the main subject of our attention is what we point our eyes at. It’s what we focus on; it’s what our brain works to interpret in extra detail. To varying degrees, anything that isn’t our focus disappears. It isn’t important right now, and the brain loves to save power, so it just deletes it.
Your eyes, of course, are still seeing the things in your “peripheral” vision (scare quotes because how tight that tunnel might be depends on circumstance) and your brain is still receiving that signal. It simply chooses to not do anything with it. The result is something like letterboxing a video.
Did you know that videos shot for cinema are not in the same aspect ratio that you see them on your TV? TVs used to be 4:3, mostly square. Now, they’re commonly 16:9, pretty rectangular. Cinema screens are usually 1.85:1 (37:20) but a lot of footage is actually filmed in 2.39:11 — that’s really wide! So when that footage gets put on a screen with a different shape, some parts are cut off. You don’t get to see them. The other option would be to shrink it to fit, which is where those black top and bottom bars come from (though nowadays, they’re usually faked or not needed).
The information is there2. It just isn’t being seen.
Focus is a neat trick. By discarding information deemed unimportant, our brain can devote a whole bunch of power to deciphering the information that is important. We get to see one particular object in exquisite detail. But what if we go the opposite direction? How about widening our screen.
If, instead of focusing on one thing, we defocus — not our eyes but our mind — then there is a sense that everything zooms out a little bit. If we’re clever, we don’t make everything unimportant but instead make everything the same level of sorta important. In colloquial terms, we spread our attention.
Suddenly, we notice things we hadn’t before. They aren’t in super extreme detail because we’re not focused on them to the exclusion of other things. But they’re significantly more detailed than if we had been focused on something else. And I posit that most of the time, that’s enough.
I was out on a walk today and it was a beautiful afternoon. I thought I’d relax my focus a bit since it seemed like it would be nice to see more things and really use my full vision. The sky was there, the road was there, the sidewalk was there, the squirrels were there. But then more sky appeared above me, more road appeared before me, more sidewalk appeared under my feet, more squirrels appeared all around.
Nothing really changed. My eyes didn’t get extra wide, and none of those things around me actually weren’t there before. I just wasn’t seeing them because a little bit of tension in my brain directed processing power to a circle of vision that didn’t include part of the information coming in.
The experience is like going from an old CRT TV to an IMAX theater. It is invigorating and I highly recommend giving it a try. Of course, it doesn’t stop at the visual cortex. This process of relaxing focus and spreading attention works for all of our senses, and boy is it wonderful.
If you need to get the utmost detail about something, focus on it. Your brain can spend all its processing power on one thing. But if you don’t need that, which is most of the time, then try spreading it out a bit. The world we live in becomes that much richer.
Weirdly, I was unable to find a way to simplify this into whole numbers (except 239:100) … no common factors, I guess!
This isn’t strictly true all the time, in that nowadays things are rendered to fit the screen they will be displayed on and are sometimes remastered for different screen sizes