Ordered Attention Allows Creative Insight

My eight-year old has the gift of ordered attention.

Yesterday, he sat on a little red chair in front of his old laptop for an hour designing Lego systems. He wears headphones to keep sounds to himself, but mostly to keep distractions out.

My little boy doesn’t really need those headphones.  When he works alone on his projects he delves deeply. He naturally shuts out distractions, unconsciously ignoring the hustle and bustle of our busy home. He has what I call Ordered Attention, the opposite of Attention Deficit Disorder. He squanders no conscious mental effort to pay attention. He just does. His Ordered Attention seems a well-worn Connectome, or set of neural-transmissions that make a pathway, in his brain.

Nineteenth-century French microbiologist Louis Pasteur said,

Chance favors the prepared mind.

Pasteur’s prepared mind results from high education (10,000 hours spent on mastery in a domain) and Ordered Attention.

People come in all varieties and degrees of intensities.  But is the easy Ordered Attention my son seems to naturally posses, teachable?

Neuroscientist John Kounios found Creative insight does favor the prepared mind.  Science writer Jonah Lehrer explains Kounios’ discovery best.  Lehrer says,

Kounios tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of [his] insight experiments.

At first, the meditator couldn’t solve any of the insight problems. “This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank,” Kounios said. “He was used to being very focussed, but you can’t solve these problems if you’re too focussed.”

Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting them all right. It was an unprecedented streak.

Normally, people don’t get better as the task goes along,” Kounios said. “If anything, they get a little bored.”

Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. “He had the cognitive control to let go,” Kounios said. “He became an insight machine.

Creative insight happens when attention is inwardly-directed.

The language-processing centers of the brain’s left hemisphere ready themselves to literally give words to an idea that is about to come. The right hemisphere is, at the same moment, browsing itself looking to retrieve weakly activated potential solutions to a problem.  The areas of the brain that interpret data from the outer world are dormant.

If a Zen guy can control his mind to let go and become an insight machine, maybe those of us who do not gave the gift of Ordered Attention would benefit from the discipline of meditation.