Monday, June 23, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE WANDERING MIND” by Michael C. Corballis (Auckland University Press, $NZ34:99)

Here is a situation I have often experienced in both secondary and tertiary teaching.
On my desk sits a huge pile of examinations to mark. Few things are as enervating and as destructive of the rational human mind as the marking of examinations. I nibble at the pile for a while. Then my mind begins to wander. I think of all those classics I mean to get around to reading. I think of that interesting magazine article I read last week. I think about my social plans for the weekend. I get a really good idea for an essay or a poem. I wonder where exactly I can get all the words to that song I half-remember from my childhood. I think of myself at last getting around to mowing the lawn that I resolved to mow a fortnight ago. Sometimes some wild fantasies heave into view.
And then my eyes re-focus and I find about fifteen minutes have gone by and I have been staring at the same unassessed page of an examination script.
I scold myself, grit my teeth, and try to get on with the dismal job.
Daydreaming can be a great waste of time when you’re working against the clock. But in The Wandering Mind (subtitled What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking), Michael C. Corballis insists that we should not feel guilty or handicapped by the propensity of our minds to wander like this. In fact, he says,  mind-wandering is the source of creativity, the spark of innovation that leads in the longer run to an increase rather than a decrease in well-being.” (p.11)
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Auckland, and now in his 78th year, Michael Corballis has written this one for the common reader, not for the specialist. Like his collection of short magazine pieces, Pieces of Mind [reviewed on this blog in 2011 – look it up on the index at right], The Wandering Mind gives simple and accessible information about the mind and how it works, replete with illustrative anecdotes. The theme is announced as the value of the wandering mind, but in his preface Corballis does admit that its nine chapter can be read “each more or less on its own” (p.viii). And, often losing the specific theme of the undirected mind, that is how I read it.
We plunge (Chapter 1), via a passage about Walter Mitty, into the theme of the mind’s loose wandering and what Corballis calls “eddies” (annoying tunes or jingles that get struck in your mind). Corballis explains that electroencephalography shows the frontal areas of the brain are active during the times the mind is “at rest”, and therefore these frontal lobes basically control our mind’s wanderings. He refers to the “default-mode network” of the brain.
For the mind to wander anywhere, however, there has to be the faculty of memory, which is what Corballis examines in Chapter 2. He divides memory into the three areas of learnt skills (such as walking), learnt facts and the “episodic memory” that stores specific events in one’s own life. It is the episodic memory that is most fragile and most likely to be lost by amnesiacs. Corballis gives examples of people who retain high intelligence and high memory of impersonal facts, but have lost the memory of half their life. Even a good memory is malleable, however. As he has done elsewhere, Corballis discusses the phenomenon of “paramnesias” (“false memory”) and once again scorns the craze for “recovered memories” which blighted much psycho-therapy three or four decades ago with hysterical suggestions that infant sexual abuse was almost universal.
Memory leads to reflections on the brain’s registering of time (Chapter 3) and the role of the hippocampus in the brain (Chapter 4). Corballis, interested in our position in the story of evolution, spends much time considering whether non-human animals “remember” as human beings do, and whether or not they can “model” the future as we do. He offers, incidentally, the interesting titbit that “the hippocampus …seems to swell to meet spacial demand” and gives as an example the observation that London taxi-drivers have “unusually enlarged” hippocampi because they have to memorise “The Knowledge” of all the quickest routes through their huge city (p.57).
Rather abruptly we are then thrown into the matter of “theory of mind” (Chapter 5) – that is, how we are able to imagine, intuit or “read” other people’s minds, feelings and intentions. Tersely kicking away notions of ESP and mental telepathy, Corballis ascribes our skills in this area to the evolutionary necessity of bonding in groups with our own kind. This ability appears to be what is disrupted by autism and Asperger’s syndrome. “Theory of mind” also involves our ability to deceive, and from our ability to deceive comes (Chapter 6) story-telling, which may have developed from the play of our primate, and earliest human, ancestors.
Following on from this, the last three chapters deal with the stories we tell to ourselves in dreams, in hallucinations and (at last returning to his declared theme) in the creative wanderings of our mind. The dream chapter is enlightening. Corballis suggests that the fact we cannot remember most of our dreams could be the mind’s defence mechanism, to prevent us from confusing “true” and “false” memories. (A remembered dream could rapidly become the sort of formative thing in our mind that memories of real experiences are.) He largely dismisses Freud’s notion that dreams are heavily fraught with sexual symbolism; and he suggests that unpleasant dreams could serve as the mind’s rehearsal for how we will react to real dangerous or threatening situations. Regrettably, I found the last two chapters oddly unenlightening, and a bit of an anti-climax after the rest of the book. The chapter on hallucinations becomes a discussion on whether creativity really is in the right side of the brain (answer – no, not really). That on the fruitful wanderings of the mind ends up as a list of people who have used chemical stimulants to fire their imaginations.
As a materialist, Corballis is dismissive of anything resembling a spiritual experience. The Quaker George Fox’s experience of hearing the voice of God is naturally brushed off (p.131) as pure hallucination, and classed with the auditory hallucination Evelyn Waugh has his hero suffer in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.
This bias aside, however, and despite its lame conclusion, The Wandering Mind is generally a fun and informative book for the non-specialist, free of the type of condescension that bedevils so many popularisations.

Three silly and frivolous footnotes:
1.     Congratulations to Corballis for avoiding the semi-literate use of “their” or “they” when he uses the generic singular. Thus he writes (correctly) “when a person is engaged in a task and when she is not” (p.7). Of course he’s had to be PC enough to use “she” rather than “he” in his generic singulars, but at least he hasn’t violated the language. However…
2.     A stern rebuke to Corballis for telling us that something happened in the 1830s (p.128); and then two pages later ascribing it to “the eighteenth century” (p.130). I do hope he hasn’t succumbed to the dreaded disease of calling the nineteenth century “the 1800s”.
3.     Finally, my Scottish friends and I will challenge Emeritus Professor Corballis to claymores at dawn for referring (p.74) to Sir Walter Scott as an “English” poet and novelist…. and also for using the verb “quote” when he meant the noun “quotation”.

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