The Open Focus Brain by Les Fehmi emphasizes the need for humans to be able to shift out of a narrowly focused objective state of attention and into a more open, diffuse, and immersive state of attention. The author describes 4 different categories of attention with the ultimate goal of being able to freely shift between all states. This is analogous to having a flexible nervous system which the goal for optimal human functioning.
Today’s modern society tends to be stuck in a “narrow objective” focus state which encompasses an “emergency mode of paying attention that quickly and substantially increases the frequency of the brain’s electrical activity (associated with 16-22 Hz (Beta)), raises heart rate and respiratory rate, thus affecting our perception, emotions, and behavior.” It is associated with a more prevalent sympathetic (increased stress) nervous system activation pattern. From an evolutionary perspective, this state was designed to allow us to intensely focus quickly for survival and be utilized for short bursts of time. Unfortunately, in our current culture we are employing this type of focus around the clock exhibiting related behavior of hypervigilance, anxiety, addiction, and ADD/ADHD.
Narrow objective attention restricts one’s sensory and emotional fields. Because so many resources are being specifically allocated to this emergency state of focus, other areas of the brain such as the sensory and empathetic emotional centers are not as engaged. Peripheral vision can be impacted as well since one is not able to fully utilize all of their senses during narrow focused experiences. This results in a duller and less rich reality. When interacting with others in narrow focus we are not adequately engaging our empathy systems which can affect our emotional intelligence and ability to form meaningful relationships.
Our culture endorses objectivism. We reward the ability to achieve in school and work coupled with high efficiency and productivity pressures. Objectifying involves us creating a sense of separateness from other. “Our culture affirms personal relationships not by common experiences of oneness or union but by sharing and reiteration of common objective experiences, whatever form they take, whether it’s a sporting event, a thought or feeling, or a new purchase. We are rewarded, respected, despised, criticized, loved, punished, accepted, or rejected based upon our ability to focus on, objectify, name, recall, and verbalize thoughts and experiences.” We are successful in our society if we are masters of narrow focus. Unfortunately, these cultural pressures combined with the hypervigilance and anxiety they often create within us makes it difficult for individuals to truly know themselves. Reconciling between what society demands we want versus what we truly desire and dream becomes a true challenge.
The underlying physiological state behind a narrowly focused existence is a stressed one. Trauma, a childhood without proper nurture, societal pressures, or stress created in other areas of the body (refer to the “Integrated System’s Model of Stress and its Potential Clinical Patterns for more information) can all induce a narrow focused state as well as be facilitated by one. When feeling the associated anxiety of such a pattern one may compensate through addiction or ADD/ADHD. Such behaviors serve as a distraction for the unpleasant underlying emotions related to narrow focus. The author states “If we live our lives resisting painful memories and feelings, we come to fear our present experience; and if we organize our lives to avoid discomfort, we separate ourselves from life in the moment. Or we simply focus narrowly away from the unwanted inner feelings, distancing ourselves from emotional awareness and any unpleasant manifestations in our bodies. We lose a sense of flow in our lives; we become cut off from the moment, numbed out, and separated from the intimacy of the full here-and-now experience. This kind of reality, managed around tension, is flat and dull compared to the vivid experience of life in open focus. “
The author describes three additional states of attention that we are ideally shifting between; diffuse objective, diffuse immersed, and narrow immersed. Diffuse objective involves being able to simultaneously attend to a wide field of experience but still be objective and separate from that experience. This allows one to thoroughly process sensory input and have access to their empathy centers. This state is associated with well-learned repetitive behaviors such as sports or playing an instrument. Diffuse immersed is characterized by union, creativity, love, and spiritual attainment. One loses a sense of time and space in this state. This mode also allows integration of information acquired during narrow-objective processing. This may also be characterized by playing a sport or instrument but the difference from diffuse objective is that there is a loss of sense of self, time, and objectivism. One is in a state of flow. This mode also maximizes the body’s ability to recover and rest. Narrow-immersed is a combination of high and low brain frequencies that allow one to simultaneously savor and intensify an experience. Examples include being absorbed in an intellectually interesting task or participating in an enjoyable activity. The goal is to be able to seamlessly move between these 4 attentional quadrants in a flexible and variable manner.
The author correlates the objective categories of attention to be primarily operated by the left hemisphere of the brain which is responsible for language, speech, writing, and sequential information processing. Left brain dominant individuals tend to be more narrowly and objectively focused with rigid, goal oriented attitudes which is consistent with the prevalent state of our culture. On the other hand, the diffusive and immersive right hemisphere has empathetic responsibilities such as expressing emotions, perceiving facial signals, and reading body language. It facilitates insight and intuitive reasoning; takes in the big picture and context; and sees things all at once. Right brained dominant individuals tend to be more creative and see the overall perspective while not paying as much attention to details such as time and deadlines. For optimal functioning and performance we need to be able to shift between the two hemispheres depending on the nature of the task at hand in addition to promote conservation of bodily resources.
The approach of the Postural Restoration Institute is based upon the goal of achieving reciprocal dynamic shifting between the left and right sides of the body. This encompasses the abilities to achieve proper stance and swing phases of gait and breathe fully on both sides of the rib cage in a rhythmical fashion. In osteopathic terms, we want the body to be able to fully transfer between states of internal and external rotation. Just as modern society humans have become locked into a narrowly focused state of being primarily using their left cerebral hemisphere, they have concomitantly become stuck mainly using the right side of their bodies for standing, walking, and reaching (our primary forms of movement). Since the left hemisphere controls the right hemi-body and is also the dominant side of the cortex being utilized in our culture, we are neglecting the integrative power that our right hemisphere and left hemi-body can provide for us. We are lacking a diffuse, immersive reality that incorporates all parts of our mind and body.
How can we reconcile a narrow and open focused mind, body, and culture? How we behave impacts how we feel and how we feel impacts our behavior. Therefore, approaching such a reconciliation considering both angles can be of benefit and increase the chance of success. Here is a “top ten” list of strategies:
- Imagine and open. The key to shifting into an open focus state is to focus on space and nothingness. This concept is a bit abstract but can be made more concrete if you define the space. Examples include imagining the space between your chest and back, between your ears, or between your body and the room you are in. The author has been able to measure bioelectrical changes in the brain associated with open and closed focus states. He has shown that this type of imagery is highly effective for achieving an open focused state.
- Listen and open. The author has a couple of auditory guided instructions as a part of his book that can serve as an excellent guide for learning how to openly focus. There are two thirty minute audio exercises that can be broken down into shorter chunks of time.
- Pause and open. Throughout your day of consecutive endeavors, try to take mini-breaks where you shift your attention from the task at hand to the space around and within you.
- Visualize and open. If your day requires a lot of close work, try to periodically take breaks where you can look out into the distance, up, and peripherally (in particular the left periphery as we tend to be right peripherally dominant).
- Hear, smell, taste, feel, and open. Being fully aware and utilizing all of your senses propagates a wider field of awareness, allows better access to our empathy centers, and feeds the body’s inherent sensory needs.
- Breathe and open. A narrow focused state tends to lend itself to breath holding, typically in an inhalation dominant fashion. Being mindful of fully exhaling can help the body shift into a more relaxed state.
- Reconsider and open. How critical are the tasks you want to accomplish at hand? How much of a true threat are they to your existence if they don’t get completely or perfectly done? Are you creating unnecessary stress in your life through such a perspective?
- Connect and open. Engaging in meaningful interpersonal relationships taps into the empathic centers of our brain which are associated with a more diffuse existence.
- Play and open. Participating in activities that are enjoyable and allow one to become immersed in the moment facilitate a flowing, open focused state. Activities that promote rhythm and alternation of the body are particularly restorative.
- Get extra help and open. Some individuals may need the guidance of a professional to work through deeper, embedded patterns of stress that may be related to macro and/or repetitive micro trauma experienced at various points in their life. Unfortunately, our culture does not openly embrace using mental health professionals and there is a negative stigma associated with working with one. If you find that you are not making progress using the strategies suggested above then perhaps it is within your best interest to find a professional you connect with to guide you towards truly experiencing the richness that an open focus can give you.