Has anyone noticed that staring fixedly at nothing is a great aide to thought?

Source: This painting is by Jenny Saville. And, personally, I think it's beautiful.
Source: This painting is by Jenny Saville. I think it’s called “Stare.” And, personally, I think it’s beautiful.

Over the last year, I’ve spent hundreds of hours doing heavy thinking on various novel-related things. Unfortunately, many of these hours were during engagements where I was supposed to be paying attention to my friends, family, or classmates. Furthermore, I know, from looking at my students, exactly what a disengaged person looks like: it’s an incredibly obvious expression. Whenever a person is staring unblinkingly at a fixed point, they’re probably lost somewhere inside their own head.

As a result, I’ve tried, over the past year, to hide my abstraction by remembering to move my eyes and look at the people around me and blink occasionally. Or, at the very least, I’ve tried to stare fixedly at peoples’ foreheads or something, so it looked like I was paying attention.

And what I’ve noticed from this effort is that it’s actually a lot harder to concentrate when you’re looking at something dynamic (particularly a human face). And it’s much, much easier to concentrate when you’re looking at something fixed and boring. For instance, when I was trying to think up a topic for this blog post, I found it much more productive to look away from my monitor and stare at the detritus to the right of my screen.

My totally uneducated theory about this is that if there’s any sort of visual pattern that needs to be untangled, it’s impossible for our brain to not start untangling it. And the biggest and most complex pattern-recognition problem (for us) is figuring out human facial expressions. Thus, when we’re looking at a person, we’re never going to be able to muster our full attention.

However, I’ve also found that driving and walking are really good times for thinking. And they both definitely involve a lot of looking at stuff and recognizing patterns. I think that the periodic stimulus prevents me from getting lost in my own thoughts and looping around in circles. My theory is that thinking is best accomplished in short bursts, which is why I don’t necessarily get my best thinking done when I’m all by myself.

Actually, my most productive brainstorming time used to come during class. I’m not alone in that, either. I have a friend at Hopkins (a former graduate student) who actually goes to large undergrad seminars (like, for physics classes or something) and sits anonymously in the audience and works out story ideas while the instructor drones on.