I’ve formed a habit of going for regular walks in the park. Not really for exercise, but more to get out of the house, a bid to avoid cabin fever during lockdown and curb the danger of slipping into insanity.

There’s a body of water where I walk. Not a stream, lake or river, but an old moat, with foliage overhanging its sides and ducks leisurely paddling up and down its length.

I found myself stopping there every time I strolled. I’d stand and just stare out over the water for a while.

As the days went on I found myself stopping for longer, not really knowing why. I’d look out over it and relish the time, especially when no-one else was around.

Just me, nature and nothing else.

I wouldn’t focus on anything specific, while I stood there doing absolutely nothing, not really giving particular attention to anything in front of me or in my mind. My thoughts just wandered.

After a while I’d say to myself ‘Okay, I should go now, I have stuff to do and I’ve spent long enough here for no apparent reason at all.’ But it was so hard to pull myself away.

I’d think ‘I’m not actually doing anything, why do I have an overwhelming urge to just stand here and think about nothing in particular?’

Defocused Attention

This is an interesting term, though we’re all aware of the concept; it’s when your attention isn’t fixed on any one particular thing.

When your attention is distributed over a larger number of stimuli in front of you, and is a concept defined by ocular scientists, specifically in relation to aesthetic images.

Think of looking at a beautiful scene. The sunset over the ocean at dusk, a majestic mountain range, a lush tropical waterfall. Or whatever you find aesthetically pleasing (these examples came off the top of my head, and I’ve realised they’re all of nature, but that’s just my perception of beauty).

Your attention is focused in front of you but not really on anything in particular. Not much is moving, there’s no specific focal point; it’s just distributed across a scene where not much is happening.

Now think about how, after a while, it makes you feel.

Your brain doesn’t have to work, it doesn’t need to concentrate on anything. No deliberate focus is being given and minimal energy expended. After a while the mind starts to drift.

It tends to calm, sometimes without you even realising it.

Your Mind’s Need to Aimlessly Wander

Defocused attention is essentially the idea behind meditation.

By focusing your senses on something non-specific or repetitive, like your breathing, a simple task or a beautiful scene, your brain doesn’t need to concentrate much, but is still paying a bit of attention to keep its sensory inputs busy.

The result is calm which befalls the rest of your mind, and it’s in this tranquil state when it can just wander aimlessly.

Think of a time when your thoughts didn’t have a focus, when you weren’t concentrating on anything and nothing was screaming for your attention. When your thoughts were just allowed to just drift here, there and everywhere.

Did your thoughts drift to unexpected places? Did you connect things which you hadn’t connected previously? Did you have any realisations or ideas, however small, simply from your mind being allowed to wander?

It’s in these crucial, non-specific-focus moments that ideas can form, concepts can connect and realisations can be made.

Our brains seem to need this occasional, but crucial, wandering time. It might also be the reason so many people are willing to spend money and effort to visit places of aesthetic beauty, peacefulness or somewhere to just do (almost) nothing.

This feeling of mental tranquility arises from prolonged non-specific focus, and can even be pleasurable, as some regular meditators and runners will tell you.

How to Defocus Your Attention

Defocusing ones attention has become increasingly difficult in the current age, and worse yet, most of us don’t realise how important it is to just let the mind wander (I certainly didn’t consciously realise until recently).

It’s obvious why non-specific focus is so difficult to achieve today.

For many of us, in any spare moment, the lure of pulling out our phones to scroll through endless streams of posts, news or videos is just too great. There’s always something we could be reading, catching up on or playing.

In the modern day our minds have far less time to just ‘be’.

Millions of different stimuli scream for our attention everyday, the pull of our smartphones included. Focusing on something specific (no matter how trivial it might be) is so easy, it makes focusing on nothing at all so much more difficult than it’s ever been.

We’re constantly switched on, constantly connected and constantly available on the other end of a screen. When I look out over the water is made ever-more tranquil by my phone not being with me; removing any possibility of something stealing and centering my focus.

Make time for your mind to defocus, to concentrate on nothing at all. Visit and stand somewhere calm or beautiful, without the intention of doing or thinking of anything.

Or try sitting and focusing on your breathing, or on a simple task. Something you find therapeutic, requires minimal concentration and is somewhat repetitive.

This will focus the front of your mind so the rest can relax.

If you have moments when you’re not doing anything, maybe between working or tasks, occasionally resist the pull of your phone and just let your mind drift.

Our minds have a need to wander. It’s in this time thoughts can connect and, more importantly, ideas can form. Every now and then, let them.

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