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The Art of Intentional Distraction

“When I grow up I want to be a math teacher so I can teach people to add and distract.”

Anya Matanovic, age 5

By Milenko Matanovic

It’s a fact. Strong, connected, vibrant communities make us happier and healthier. When communities are strengthened, economies improve, crime rates drop, people live longer, and they feel safer.

But how do we go about creating healthy communities? Of course, there’s not a single answer, but it turns out that our creative attitude, or how we do what we do, makes all the difference, because ground zero for this difference is our ability to integrate new and diverse ideas.

Scientists, tracking brain activity, claim that “aha! moments” emerge from these two opposing activities: focusing and roaming. Spotlighting an issue is only the starting point. Once that focus is firmly established and the problem identified, we need to relax, be “distracted.” Our brains need to be released to wander, making connections with seemingly unrelated deposits of hidden knowledge. New insights happen because different parts of the brain begin communicating with each other.

Our brains are like mansions with many rooms, each room locked with a treasure trove of information within. That precious information is unavailable unless we unlock the door. This is the roaming part. Only then do we allow seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge to connect and produce a new insight. Hidden corners of knowledge are inaccessible when our brains are in a reactive mode, motivated by anxiety and fear. Our thoughts, constricted by the boundaries defined by the problem, generate predictable responses. This is like staying in one room to solve a problem with only that room’s assets even though the necessary tools are right next door. Conventional wisdom is that, to get anything done, we need to focus intensely on the problem without distractions. Stay in the room. Ironically, by preventing the mind from knocking on other “doors”, we actually prevent new insights.*

At Pomegranate Center we are inspired by this focus & roaming approach and seek to apply it to our work with communities. We try to see each participant as a room full of insight and knowledge. We “knock” on each person to explore how different sensibilities and insights contribute to finding optimal solutions. This means that we all have to recognize each other as a source of knowledge and vital information.

In community meetings we often find that the default mode is the opposite of creativity. Instead on learning, we promote preexisting ideas, restating them as often and as loudly as possible in hopes of recruiting others to our point of view. In this mode there is little or no possibility of discovering something new. Persisting in the righteousness of our ideas without openness to “aha! moments,” we cannot learn, grow, or engage. At Pomegranate Center we intentionally invite participants to listen and learn from each other to uncover possibilities. We make the assumption that each individual is smart in some areas, yet ignorant in others. It makes sense, then, to ask what others see and think, patching up each other’s ignorance, and together constructing a solution that is greater than any one individual’s “room” of knowledge. When the best happens, we become each other’s “aha! moments.”

We are privileged to experience the success of this first hand in our projects. Again and again we witness a kind of improvisational theater where an adamant “No” is replaced with “Yes, and…”. When something important is at stake, collaboration becomes the new default habit and remarkable solutions are revealed.

Our brains are complex, brilliant instruments capable of new discoveries when synapses between diverse parts are established. Communities can be similarly brilliant when we collaborate, when we are generous enough to see each other as sources of knowledge rather than enemies or irritating distractions. This generosity, this attitude of largesse – this intentional distraction from a single solution – makes it possible to connect the dots between the different parts of our collective brain, uncovering new and exciting possibilities.

When it comes to community – this maddening mix of cultures, ideologies, sensibilities and tastes – together we always know more.


*I recommend Johan Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works for deeper learning about the creative process.