The Sweetness of Tunnel Vision


Why we are addicted to getting dangerously stuck in our minds.

We all know what the phrase tunnel vision or cognitive constriction means: it is a kind of rationale narrowing effect that happens inside the brain. You are dragged into this tiny narrow slit inside consciousness. It creates the difficulty, or even impossibility, for the person to see beyond the circumstances.

Yet, even though we understand the potentially fatal nature of tunnel vision, it is incredibly hard to get out of. It is a strange version of being focused. In fact, there is a hint of sweetness in this poison that’s very rewarding. In other words, cognitive constriction is the half-blood prince of being focused.

How come this half-blood prince seems to have reasons to exist?

The purpose of focus is obvious. It is a feature of the brain which allows us to do and finish anything useful. This feature becomes a bug when the mental blinds become too aggressive. The spotlights in consciousness become too dimmed. As a result, reason, reality, and the trails of dog poop on the pavement go unnoticed.

Neuroscientists are starting to provide tad more explanation to what our brains are doing when we edge ride between day dreaming and focusing.

On one end, when we are day dreaming, a thing in our brain calls the Default Mode Network (DMN) takes over. On the other end, when we are a tad more awake, the DMN quiets down. Similarly, when we are focused on something, the DMN is quieter.

The DMN is a complex thing, but in broad strokes, it’s a network of brain areas that takes us to wander in our minds. It’s a character the “Inside Out” movie didn’t get to talk about. He is the “lost in thoughts” dude. He is also the same culprit that drags us back into ruminating on how you could have come back differently to that passive aggressive comment your dickhead boss made 3 hours earlier. Similarly, whenever you repeatedly worry about what your next conversation with Mr. Dickhead Boss, it’s the work of Mr. “Lost in Thoughts”.

When we become aware, the moment when we snap out of day dreaming, the moment when all of a sudden we realise we have been talking out loud while taking a piss, the “Lost in Thoughts” dude is taking a toilet break himself. The DMN quiets down.

When the DMN takes a back seat, as we start to move along the path of being more aware and focused, one could reach a state on the other end of this spectrum: the “flow state” (or “I am in the zone, man”, “I am unconscious, dude!”, according to the Urban Thesaurus). We get into this state usually when we are completely engulfed into a task or activity. Supposedly surfers, rock climbers, Superman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Einstein could all get into this state on demand, where time is supposed to disappear, your sense of self is supposed to disappear, woo woo happens, and you can dance like Michael Jackson. I can’t describe what it feels like because I am not evolved enough to experience it. It sounds like a highly awesome and functional version of being blackout drunk.

So in other words, being completely lost in thoughts, and being completely zoned out and awesome, are very similar.

In addition to the DMN, there is also the salient network and the executive network. In fact, studies have found that genius and the most creative people seem to master the ability to toggle between these states.

Now I know you are about to close this tab and don’t give me a clap because this article is becoming painfully boring, please give me a chance to make some sense of out this.

The brain stores stuff: Knowledge, experiences, memories, etc. It’s the library. The DMN actually serves a very important function as our minds wander into our library. The DMN is like this research student who is sorting, digesting, and summarizing all the books and papers in the library. She opens up old books, reads new research papers, and runs these new information through tests and simulations (dreaming and ruminating). She actually finds connections, then forms new ideas and new ah ha moments. Yes, the DMN is THE “Eureka Elf”. That’s why inventors or creative folks often claimed that some of their most important Eureka moments came while their minds were wandering, when they were taking a shower, or right before they fell asleep.

And the command of the salient and executive networks is what separates Thomas Edison from me. If the DMN is the Eureka Elf, the salient network and the executive network is Santa. Once the Eureka elf puts out all these gifts of new ideas and ah-ha moments, Santa decides which of these gifts are as golden as the coolest LOL toys, which are utter crap (your mom’s artisanal knitted sweater). The salient and executive networks detect information from the default mode network, help focus on what’s important, and discard what’s unimportant.

Therefore a great mind is able to sift through the noises and hear the most beautiful whispers of the mind. If the great mind is the real Team Santa from Scandinavia, the shitty mind is the miserable team of scavengers near a pile of non-recyclable plastic junk, and a mind with tunnel vision is Team Santa, made in China.

When I get stuck into a state of cognitive constriction, I am actually more focused. These are the only moments where I get to be temporarily freed from the suffocating and relentless internal chatter. This state is similar to finding a half eaten chocolate bar in the haystack of useless junk. The chocolate bar may be rotten, but it has some sweetness. When Santa is never really available, the crappy electric toy from Shenzhen Santa is much more preferable, even if it might explode and kill me. Anything is better then pieces of dried dog poop peeled off from a pair of sneakers with waffle patterned outsoles. Tunnel vision is camel’s piss when I am stranded in the middle of a desert.

I don’t get to decide if I am happy with these options. I wish the real Santa exists. At the same time, I managed to finish this article only because I stumbled upon a piece of rancid chocolate bar.

So thank you, 🍫.

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