Focused or Fuzzy ?

The concepts of “focus” and its opposite, “fuzziness” or “diffuseness” are often used to describe characteristics of light. But they can also be used to describe ways in which we use our attention, our concentration, or even more generally to describe our approach to music and life. At the one extreme, we focus our concentration like an intense laser beam, while at the other end of the concentration spectrum we might use a more open, dreamy, relaxed, “fuzzy” approach. In fact, an alternative title for this article could have been “Laser or Dreamtime ?” As with most psychological questions, this is not a mutually exclusive, either/or situation, in which we need to decide for one or the other: both approaches are valid and useful, depending on the situation and the circumstances.


The developed world, with its constant striving to always improve, tends to see the benefits more of the focused mind rather than the dreamy mind. We are encouraged to “work” rather than to “drift”, to consume and improve our lot (get richer) rather than just subsisting and floating happily along. Rather than existing in relative harmony with our surroundings, we are encouraged, since biblical times, to “go out and dominate nature”. Rather than living in cooperation with our fellow man, we are encouraged to compete against him. The winning edge in all these battles is given by “focus”. Focus has given us technology and enormous wealth, and the focused societies of the world (the “hard-working” ones) have taken over the planet, initially by force and subterfuge, now by economic and technological obligation.


The goal-oriented focus of the businessman is in stark contrast to the “Dreamtime” of the Aboriginals and most other “primitive” cultures. Traditionally the world of “the arts” has had more in common with these primitive societies than with the business world, because artistic goals (as well as artistic work-methods, thinking and language) tend to be somewhat more intuitive and emotionally centred than those of the businessman.


But too much focus can close our minds, individually as well as collectively, as though we were horses with our eyes blinkered (the lateral vision blocked off) to avoid us being distracted, slowed down, diverted and perhaps even ultimately dropping out of the race. While the word “concentration” normally has favourable connotations, the expression “tunnel vision” does not, yet too much concentration (focus) can easily lead to tunnel vision. One result of excessive focus (concentration of our attention), both collectively and individually, is a type of “fascism” (or “fundamentalism”) in which we lose awareness of (and appreciation for) anything that is not directly under the beam of our laser. Another negative side-effect of too much (or too intense) concentration of our attention is …… tension (etymologically linked to the words “intense” and “attention”), both physical and psychological. We all know how our bodies react when we are “trying too hard“, and the physical manifestations of excessive focus are not discussed here (click on the links). It is the behavioural/psychological manifestations of excessive focus that concern us on this page: a tendency towards frustration, anger, rigidity and intolerance are just the tip of an iceberg of psychological woes derived from the excessive focus that we suffer in the developed world. While depression and burnout may be its most common long-term consequences, manifestations of obsessive-compulsive thinking and behaviour (not always in their most extreme forms) are perhaps its most direct medium-term side-effect.


And what happens if we have an “excess” of Dreamtime, of relaxation  ??? Are there any negative consequences at all apart from a possible lack of driving ambition and materialism?? What are the opposites of fascism and obsessive-compulsive disorder if not harmony, tolerance, good humour, generosity, spontaneity and open-mindedness ?? Unfortunately, there are negative consequences from an excess of dreamtime: we will probably be overtaken and overrun by our more driven neighbour and might ultimately find ourselves with no land, no home and no means to live. Having grown up in New Zealand and Australia, the contrast between the indigenous and British-colonial societies has left powerful and indelible impressions ………


The diffuse, gentle, warm, yellow glow of candlelight, so appropriate for relaxation and intimacy, would be totally inappropriate for a hospital operating theatre. But that hard, powerful, white light so useful for the surgeon is not the light we would choose to live with at all other hours of the day. The same can be said for our ways of thinking and working: an intense focus of our concentration is undoubtedly very useful at times …… but beware if we are seduced by its power, because it can be difficult to escape from the beam or switch it over into “candle mode”.


Let’s continue with our use of “light” and its different intensities as a metaphor for how we live our lives, but now from a different aspect. Up until now in this article we have mostly looked at the way in which we use our minds like a light to illuminate our paths: we could consider this as “the light we are” or, alternatively, as the light that we “emit”. But we are not only emitters of light. Apart from when we are tucked away in our beds at night, we live our lives constantly bathed under light emitted by other sources, both metaphorically (social atmosphere) and physically (the real actual light). We can consider these as “the light(s) we are in“.

Light is in many ways a metaphor for life, and the many ways to describe different qualities of light often cross the boundaries between the different senses. The terms “hushed” or “muted” lighting make a parallel between our visual and aural senses, while “soft” “hard” “warm” and “cold” lighting (and the expression “bathing in light”) make the parallel with our sense of touch. So what sort of light do we prefer to live (and make music) in/under: the focused, bright, hard, intense, relentless beam of a spotlight, or the soft gentle glow of candlelight? And, using light’s more metaphoric sense, do we prefer to be looked at (or listened to) with a hard, laser-intensity stare, or on the contrary, with a soft, gently diffuse regard?

The answer to these questions seems obvious. Keeping someone permanently exposed to bright lights is an internationally recognised torture method designed to rapidly break the will of any prisoner or crime suspect, whereas candlelight is considered the ideal accompaniment to a romantic evening. But when we think of light as a metaphor for life’s social atmosphere, we realise that in fact, very many people do live (and especially work) as though they were under those operating theatre lights all day (at least) because that is the intensity that modern society demands. This is no longer a question of choice for most people.

One curious, unexpected answer to this question refers to musical performance. While the idea of being under bright spotlights for a performance may seem terrifyingly similar to being on an operating table or in an interrogation cell, those same bright lights have the paradoxical effect in a performance setting of making the public invisible. In this case, the bright lights, rather than breaking our will might actually help us to feel more centred and less distracted than if we could see the many people watching us ! But this is the exception rather than the rule.