It wasn’t so much a New Year’s resolution as a turn-of-the-year experiment. Anticipating six days in a row with no scheduled obligations, I resolved to spend the week writing at a pace I hadn’t sustained in a while and see what happened. Would focus and flow come back?
Recently I happened on an article about the brain states of zebrafish. They have a limbic system (involved in emotion) similar to humans and they’re easier to study. Researchers have found a hub of neurons that control a brain-wide motivational switch. When it’s activated, a zebrafish goes into high focus for a limited time to chase prey. Unrelated skills are suppressed until the hunting state winds down. Then the zebrafish swims about restlessly exploring its environment.
Focus or explore? I identify with the zebrafish in its need for both. My New Year’s experiment managed to reactivate the focus switch for hours at a stretch. But art and life also need periods of diffuse attention to fuel creativity, taking us places we didn’t know existed. Without the aimless times, I’d never have thought to inquire into the brain states of zebrafish.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.