Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Neuroscience is universally engaged in the study of the fascinating organ that is our brain.
An eminent expert in this field, Moshe Bar, has produced a book that is claimed to be the first to deal with a particular area of brain function – Mindwandering. He has attempted to make this subject interesting, accessible and relevant to any who anyone inclined to benefit from this knowledge, at a popular level.
So much current emphasis is placed on an ability to focus, to concentrate or pay attention. Therefore, it is both reassuring and intriguing to learn from this reputable scientist that having mindwandering episodes can be both valuable and essential.
This capacity lies in the pre-frontal cortex. MRI sessions with subjects have identified D.M.N., the Default Mode Network, which highlights the fact that the brain is constantly active. The conscious and subconscious mix which contributes to the connections to thoughts which sometimes may be to something that is not obvious.
While awake, there are no pauses or blanks in our thinking. While engaged in a structured activity such as planning, the brain can produce a train of thought. Sometimes there are distractions which form tangents to the planning, but may lead to an acceptable outcome.
Because memory is likened to a ‘giant web’, this easily connects to the perceived reality which then involves mindwandering, and this could generate insight to the situation. Unannounced, this insight can be often valuable and surprising.
The brain has a form of inner speech or dialogue with itself, so rich in many ways. It is the vital means of translating information which in turn shapes or decides our lives. It influences various areas of emotion, cognition, behaviour even mental health.
It allows us to try to make sense of others, a crucial tool in negotiating and decision-making. This is difficult, often inconclusive, even wrong.
The mind is able to form associations by linking mental drift. Group conversations can stimulate this. One person complains about the traffic, another then mentions their father has surrendered his driving licence which in turn leads to talk of independence and convenience and so it goes on….
Experience leads to simulation of events, triggered by a mundane event. A man waiting for his luggage at a carousel, imagines a garment being caught in the conveyor belt and the accident that ensues.
Driving a car or doing a crossword means the mind must be busy, concentrating. Repetitive or boring tasks like housework allow mindwandering.
Our mental lives are shaped by the external world and when the world was faced by the challenges of the Covid pandemic, it was successfully able to adapt to the new life with its regulations and restrictions. The key word is successful. The inner world of the majority convinced it to make decisions that benefited society.
Moshe Bar is an outstanding neuroscientist. Formerly a director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard, he has had many honours and awards bestowed.
It is an important to note that this review only touches on the quantity of information this book contains. It is full of anecdotes and examples which brilliantly illustrate significant points. Moshe Bar indicates that it is possible to profit from imagined experiences and the importance and value to health of meditation is emphasised repeatedly.
Above all, it must be remembered, he maintains, that a wandering mind may reveal untold or unexpected benefits.
by Moshe Bar
ISBN 978 14088 8806 3