In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality — or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions. But in the sense of the word applicable to man — in the sense of a consciousness which is aware of reality and able to deal with it, a consciousness able to direct the actions and provide for the survival of a human being — an unfocused mind is not conscious.

Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.” Existentially, the choice “to focus or not” is the choice “to be conscious or not.” Metaphysically, the choice “to be conscious or not” is the choice of life or death.

“Focus” designates a quality of one’s mental state, a quality of active alertness. “Focus” means the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality. It’s the state of a mind committed to seeing, to grasping, to understanding, to knowing.

“Full awareness” does not mean omniscience. It means: commitment to grasp all the facts relevant to one’s concern and activity at any given time . . . as against a splintered grasp, a grasp of some facts while others which you know to be relevant are left in fog. By “full” I include also the commitment to grasp the relevant facts clearly, with the fullest clarity and precision one is capable of.

“Focus” is not synonymous with “thinking,” in the sense of step-by-step problem-solving or the drawing of new conclusions. You may be walking down the street, merely contemplating the sights, but you can do it in focus or out of focus. “In focus” would mean you have some purpose directing your mental activity — in this case, a simple one: to observe the sights. But this is still a purpose, and it implies that you know what you are doing mentally, that you have set yourself a goal and are carrying it out, that you have assumed the responsibility of taking control of your consciousness and directing it . . . .

The process of focus is not the same as the process of thought; it is the precondition of thought . . . . Just as you must first focus your eyes, and then, if you choose, you can turn your gaze systematically to the objects on the table in front of you and inventory them, so first you must focus your mind, and then, when you choose, you can direct that focus to the step-by-step resolution of a specific problem — which latter is thinking.

[In answer to the question “What is the difference between concentration and focus?”]

Briefly: concentration means undivided attention on some particular task or object . . . . It is an attention, an activity, devoted to a particular subject. Now, focus is more fundamental than that. You need to be in focus in order to concentrate, but focus is the particular “set” of your consciousness which is not delimited by the particular task, object, or action that you are concentrating on. You do have to focus on something, but focus is not [limited to] the continuing task that you are performing. The concept “focus” isn’t tied to the concrete . . . it remains the same no matter what you are focused on. It is the “set” of your mind.

Ayn Rand, question period following the lecture
The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lecture 6
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