New Years is the time when many of us make resolutions. We promise ourselves to focus on losing weight, reading more books and watching less television, being mindful in the present. One of my personal perennial chestnuts in recent years is to avoid becoming a grumpy old man.
So with all this attention on focus, why was I so excited to find a book on the wandering mind to read over the winter holidays? Because “It seems we are programmed to alternate between mind-wandering and paying attention, and our minds are designed to wander whether we like it or not.” That sure rings true in my life experiences.
Are you still with me?
In The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, author Michael C. Corballis argues that
“Mind wandering has many constructive and adaptive features – indeed, we probably couldn’t do without it. It includes mental time travel – the wandering back and forth through time, not only to plan our futures based on past experience, but also to generate a continuous sense of who we are. Mind-wandering allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and understanding. Through mind-wandering we invent, tell stories, expand our mental horizons. Mind-wandering underwrites creativity, whether as a Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, or an Einstein imagining himself travelling on a beam of a light.”
Author Maria Popova has written that there is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. There are many ways our minds wander. As preservationists, we talk about memory – which is a form of mind-wandering. Corballis, in his book, uses a great deal of recent neurological research to demonstrate that memory – while important to us as humans – is not always what we make of it. He quotes American poet Marie Howe, who said, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.” Or as Mark Twain put it in his own inimitable style, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” The mind-wandering that is memory is more like telling a story, and the story that it tells is as often directed to the future as to the past, according to Corballis. In other words, creativity.
I’ve always loved the word “wander.” One of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit, has a book on walking entitled Wanderlust: A History of Walking. When Claire and I took a cross-country trip to Southern California that took us within 15 miles of the Canadian border, I titled it the Not All Who Wander Are Lost Tour.
So if you are still reading this, don’t get too worked up when your mind starts to wander, thinking that it is a waste of time. New Year’s resolutions can be helpful and there are many occasions when we need to focus in order to learn or to finish a job. But nature also designed us to dream. In his final chapter, Corballis quotes from psychologist and epistemologist Donald T. Campbell, who described the essence of creativity as “blind variation and selective retention.” Wandering is the essence of blind variation, and as humans we have the ability to stumble across something new and important and – hopefully – recognize it for what it is.
Enjoy your times of focus and wandering in this new year, and have a good week.
More to come…
*The title is a quote from comedian Steven Wright.