Tinker Dabble Doodle Try by Srini Pillay
Published by Ballantine Books, 205 pages, $28

Focus is obviously necessary—it’s the shiny fork we purposefully stab into our thoughts and activities. But is inattention as deserving of its bad rap? Psychiatrist and researcher Srini Pillay details a refreshing upside to what he calls “unfocus” in his latest book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try.

This term is the dreamy stretchiness of thought that arrives when we take a break, allowing in the looser intuitions of the unconscious. It’s from this receptive mindset that Pillay, a Newton resident and part-time assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, says many famous discoveries have come along. He tells the story of biochemist Kary Banks Mullis, whose drifty-consciousness insight while driving a car led to the making of synthetic DNA.

Using published research to back up his theories, Pillay’s suggestions for self-improvement echo the book’s title: Experiment loosely through tinkering, (like Thomas Edison fooling with various materials to make the light bulb), dabble with work or hobbies outside one’s profession (Steve Jobs had many interests before Apple) and draw to tap into other creative brain frequencies.

The scientific term for unfocus is “Default Mode Network,” although it actually consumes great energy in the brain and is responsible for creative arts, daydreaming, inventions and romance. In Pillay’s vision, AD would signify not the ominous-sounding “Attention Deficit” but rather “Attune Differently.” So, let yourself go.


From page 57: “Dreams allow you to imagine the unimaginable. Just before articulating his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein famously dreamed that he was sledding down a steep mountainside so fast that he approached the speed of light. He also dreamed that time was circular, and that it stood still so that lovers held on to each other for an eternity. When ideas like this come together, there is obviously no focused process. Instead, in dreams, the unfocused brain has the full license to roam around and collect ideas at will.” 


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