Monday, 7 July 2014

The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking by Michael Corballis (AUP 2014)

My mind is wandering away from the critical component of my PhD.  I’ve been telling people I’m in a reading and writing funk.  I just can’t be arsed reading or writing at the moment.  I’ve recently finished the first draft of my novel and I feel depleted and I instinctively feel the need to wander away from writing and literature to replenish my mind.  I went to the City Gallery on Saturday and saw Seung Yul Oh’s exhibition which was fun, and also Grant Stevens’s floating words which didn’t really help my reading and writing funk.  I couldn’t even be bothering reading the explanations beside the exhibits – I just wanted to wander around and look and absorb rather than read.  But, I did manage to read Corballis’s book because I thought it might help get rid of the funk.

The premise of Corballis’s book is that mind-wandering, or what we experience as a momentary lack of attention or day-dreaming, “has many constructive and adaptive features – indeed, we probably couldn’t do without it.  It includes mental time travel […] [and] allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and social understanding” and it also allows us to “invent, to tell stories” (viii).

We have seahorses behind our ears.  Well, not really, but we have hippocampus that looks like a seahorse which is a structure “on the inner surface of the temporal lobes of the brain – roughly behind your ears” (54).  The hippocampus (it means seahorse in Greek) is critical to mental time travel; how we mentally travel back and forth in time.  The hippocampus is the area that lights up when your mind wanders.  The mind wandering network also includes the prefrontal lobes, temporal lobes and parietal lobes (that’s a lotta lobes) but the hippocampus is, as Corballis’s says, the Grand Central Station of the network.

A lot of our mind wandering is told in stories.  We might tell our friends about things that happened in the past, or what we want to happen in the future, or we may simply make stories up.  Although mind wandering may make us seem like air-heads who don’t ‘live in the present’, Corballis argues that the ability to mind wander allows us to escape the mundane to play, invent and create.  This statement makes me think about Anne Kennedy’s talk at the Wellington Writers Week where she said that everyone is innately creative but the rigours of life and work drum it out of us.  By focusing on the present we stifle our ability to mind wander and therefore our ability to play and be creative.

Corballis discusses the literature that suggests that the right side of the brain is in charge of creativity.  He dispels the notion that either the left or right side of the brain is in charge of creativity, or one side valued more than the other.  Dividing the brain into left and right is similar to the dualisms of man/woman, black/white that “were driven to some extent by the divisions that fractured social and political life in the 1960s” (151).  Instead, Corballis sites Rex Jung’s study that suggests that creativity is found in the “widespread networks in the brain” rather than tucked up on the right hand side (152).  Instead, it is our ability to mind wander, and the randomness of those wanderings, that is the seat of creativity.

Corballis’s writing style is relaxed, witty, and conversational.  Technical details are related without jargon, and examples from literature and popular culture are used to illustrate his points.  His writing style is so relaxed and informative I want to sit in on his lectures because I imagine they are fun, and he is generous with his knowledge.  He discusses memory, time, dreams and whether animals think to the same extent as humans do.  I was particularly interested in the discussion about creativity, and feel I have a valid licence for mind wandering.

As an aside, I was reading Oliver Burkeman’s column in The Guardian who talks about Steven Pinker whose book The Sense of Style is coming out in the UK later this year.  Pinker is a psychologist who thinks that writing is a psychological phenomenon, “a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind.”  I think this relates to mind-wandering because if we choose to share our mind-wanderings with another person we can cause ideas to happen in someone else.  Anyway, if you like Corballis’s work then Pinker’s upcoming book may interest you.

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