Focus: The way we pay attention to the world can make a huge difference in the way we experience it. "Many adults in our culture are addicted to a very narrowly focused attentional style in which we beam-in sequentially on the tasks of work, shopping, paying our bills, and so on," says Les Fehmi, PhD, co-author of The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body. This gripping form of attention, which can be identified by a characteristic brain wave pattern on an electroencephalogram (EEG), is the mode we typically use when poring over a written report or staring into a computer monitor at the office. It's tiring to sustain (doing so often requires periodic infusions of caffeine and sugar), and is correlated with physiological reactions such as muscle tension, stress hormone secretion, and increased blood pressure, all of which take a toll on our health. This kind of attention can also wreak havoc on our relationships—what romantic partner wants to be scrutinized with the same intensity that we direct toward an important work assignment? Yet because we're called on to use the narrow focus so much, it's hard to let go of.
Only on vacation do many of us broaden our awareness to include the smell of pine trees, the crunch of pebbles underfoot, the way a color mutes in the rain—a mode of taking in the world that Fehmi calls open-focus attention. This mode is correlated with more synchronous EEG patterns (the famous alpha activity) and physiological relaxation. You can get a small sense of it by trying the exercises below.