Culture At Large

Focus is overrated

Caryn Rivadeneira

My kids came home so excited. The author - who appeared at their school on a national book tour; who had sold gazillions of copies of her books; who both wrote and illustrated her stories; whose name was a staple on spines in libraries and homes across the land - was just like me, my son said.

“She was!” my daughter agreed.

Because I write grown-up books with nary a drawing and because I’ve never been on a national book tour, I asked: how so?

“She gets her ideas in the shower too!” my kids said.

Ah. That. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to tell my kids that this is not as special and surprising as it seems. Even if not everyone names their muse Chaos and claims she lives in the shower, as I do, the truth is that lots of folks claim the shower as their most creative spot.

But I admit, I never knew why so many of us did. That is, until a chance encounter with some recent research clued me in. I, the children’s author and countless others, it turns out, get our best ideas in the shower because monotony “frees up” our minds.

Letting our brains relax and drift away might just be a way of wandering into the presence of God.

“Since these routines (like showering) don’t require much thought, you flip to autopilot,” writes Lucas Reilly in this Mental Floss summary piece. “This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.”


But there’s more. Contrary to what teachers and parents and anyone else who’s ever told us to “focus” might believe, it turns out, as Reilly writes, that “research shows (your brain is) more active when you let go of the leash and allow it to wander.”

Not only does this excite me intellectually - to see research bear out my long-held suspicion that my spacing out during class was me being smart, not spacey - this excites me spiritually, as well. It affirms that a lifetime of spacing out mid-sermon or mid-passage or mid-prayer is not due to a lack of engagement with God, but perhaps a longing to be more engaged, more connected with God.

Because when we do indeed let our brains off their leashes and let them wander and roam, let them sniff around the countryside a bit, there’s no telling what they’ll find. When we read a passage of Scripture or hear a bit of sermon or song that troubles or confuses or inspires or touches, letting our brains relax and drift away might just be a way of wandering into the presence of God, of understanding and even delighting more clearly in what He might be saying to us.

This research also says something about spiritual discipline and the rituals of religious life. While some complain about the rote nature of liturgy or of a need to “spice up” worship, the truth is it may be in the very monotony of these practices - the rhythm and predictability of a service, of a consistent morning prayer time or the daily grind of after-dinner devotions - that our minds are most free and open. To creativity, and to God.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith