The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, by Michael C. Corballis

Daydreaming relies on memory and our past helps us imagine future possibilities, finds Luna Centifanti

May 7, 2015

As an eager undergraduate, I was offered the chance to work with a cognitive neuroscientist on a final-year thesis looking at people’s sense of direction. I designed and programmed a computer task to test my hypothesis that pictures of directions would be more quickly understood than words.

Unfortunately, despite my keen coding skills, our infrastructure was unable to support a grand research project (ie, a senior thesis) from an admittedly very minor player in the world of academia. The computer I was given to run my task would have had a 286 processor, and it was terribly slow. (Hmm…could machines from the early 1990s have defied the laws of physics and even now be slogging their way through time?) My task showed stimuli moving left, right, up and down, and a probe followed asking for a response in words or pictures. Because the computer’s “thinking” time caused an extended delay, participants held their response in memory for a few seconds. What was the best way for participants to remember it? Yes, they held it in the form of words. I had inadvertently run a study on memory and not on directionality at all.

We probably use dreams to explore coping strategies in case we some day fall prey to a tiger or end up in a battle over armrests in the cinema

This learning experience would help to prepare me for a life in academia, where continual failure is expected (sob). Although I eventually focused on a different research subject, this study of cognitive psychology helped me to enter a “territory that was stimulating, creative – and above all happy”, to quote psychologist Michael Corballis in the final sentence of his conversational, sincere and amusing book about the tendency of our minds to stray from whatever it is we are actually supposed to be focusing on.

The prospect of finding out about why our minds wander is an exciting one. In Corballis’ engaging exploration of the subject – and in particular how it happens and why it may be useful – he draws on diverse fields of research including cognitive psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and forensic psychology. Along the way, we are treated to people’s experiences as shared in interviews and immortalised in novels and sonnets, with lyrics from pop songs by Beyoncé popping up alongside quotes from Sir Walter Scott.

Language plays an important role in Corballis’ argument about how mind wandering happens. Mind wandering relies on memory, and much of this book is spent looking at research on memory and consolidation of memories. As a developmental psychologist, I knew that children’s ability to store events from their lives depends on their language development. However, the implications for mind wandering that Corballis teases out are illuminating, particularly the revelation that we use our memories of events to construct future possibilities. Our knowledge of the past influences what we imagine happening in the future. If “narration created humanity” – as Pierre Janet, quoted by Corballis, argued – then we replicate this large-scale giant leap for humanity on a small scale for ourselves every day. The stories we tell ourselves provide fodder not only for a meandering mind but also for a creative mind – and Corballis links the two. Such stories may derive from accurate experiences or they may be falsely remembered, and both of these phenomena are well considered here. There is a particularly vivid description of a false memory experienced by the eminent psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who examined how the words we use to prompt memories could inexorably change them. Indeed, our memories are never a faithful recording of our experiences: they are filtered through, among other things, our biases and emotional contexts.

Whether we create our own fictional stories or become captivated in reading others’ fictional accounts, these stories establish the boundary of the brain’s wandering paths. Those boundaries need not be the same as those we encounter in the real world, since we entertain (or seek out?) stories about superheroes, fairies and crime super-sleuths who always uncover the most well-hidden clues. Such stories might therefore pave new paths for wandering. And we may wander not only into different worlds but also into different minds, seeing the world through the lens of another person or character. Although Corballis cites research indicating that our literary choices affect our ability to adopt another person’s perspective, one might also consider an argument for the other causal direction. It may be that people who are adept at wandering into other people’s minds choose to read fictional portrayals of other people’s life experiences. Further, these choices could feed into better perspective-taking. It would be interesting to see this explored in the future: consider it my call to mind wandering for researchers who study the fascinating field of theory of mind!

Some of my favourite stories and imaginary worlds involve fantasy and horror. Although Corballis points to circumstantial links between scary stories and country-level differences in the incidence of dream threats, bad dreams happen to all of us at some point. Some 40 per cent of them feature aggression, he says. We probably use them to explore coping strategies in case we some day fall prey to a tiger or, more aptly for most of us, end up in a battle over armrests in the cinema. These dream threats, therefore, relate to exploring potential solutions. When pursued by a tiger within the dream state, one can test out different trajectories aimed at evading the predator. It may be that the dream world concerns itself only with rehearsing practical solutions. Indeed, Corballis contends that illnesses and infections are not of concern to the dream world. Perhaps we don’t often dream of bacteria or viruses because there are no relevant practical solutions to explore while dreaming – until fairly recently in our history, that is. (Arguably, I think it would be worthwhile if people were to dream up coping strategies that involve activities to boost herd immunity. If only we were able to direct people’s dreams towards dreams of vaccines.)

If dreams help to consolidate our experiences and to explore optimum coping strategies, we may want to control their content or direction. We may also want to control when dreams and mind wandering happen, planning them at times when we are seeking a creative solution to a problem. There has been interest in the ability to control our dreams, and Corballis explores the use of both psychotropic (ie, drugs) and non-psychotropic (eg, meditation or sensory isolation) methods. Naturally, some of the ways one can be induced to wander are more amenable to being remembered. But Corballis wavers on the matter of whether it is useful to attempt to remember the direction our wandering minds take, particularly in dreams where meanings may be obtuse and groundbreaking ideas are hidden under layers of subtext. He also considers the interesting question of whether mind wandering should be allowed to remain a free-range activity. Do we gain anything by controlling it or do we simply let it roam free by, in Corballis’ analogy, throwing open a window?

Many of us search for avenues to thinking creatively, and mind wandering may function as our own self-supplied muse. To the three Bs of traditionally inspirational places (bed, bath and bus), Corballis adds the boardroom, which may also cause boredom – a chief mover, not surprisingly, of mind wandering. Personally, I’d add one more to the list: the bicycle. Admittedly it presents many threats when riding on UK streets, but it is no less eureka-worthy in offering prime incubation space.

The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking

By Michael C. Corballis
University of Chicago Press, 184pp, £14.00
ISBN 9780226238616 and 8753 (e-book)
Published 4 May 2015

The author

“Marton is a small farming town,” says Michael Corballis, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, of the dot on the New Zealand map where he was born. “I was raised on a sheep farm nearby. I was sent to boarding school at 11, first to a preparatory school and then to Wanganui Collegiate School, based on an English minor public school.

“Rugby, cricket and rowing were more important than scholarship, but by the fairly meagre standards of the school I was a top scholar – although I did make the cricket 11. In my third year my mother agreed that I was not cut out for farming, and after much consultation with her professional acquaintances it was decided that engineering was the best fit to whatever talents I possessed (architecture was a close second).

“The possibility of an academic career was never considered. This meant dropping Latin, which I loved, for chemistry, which I hated. The headmaster (Frank
Gilligan, from a well-known English cricketing family) was appalled at the switch. ‘Ah, Corballis,’ he said, “you used to be a scholar.’”

He recalls: “I think I was a fairly dutiful child, but enjoyed reading P.G. Wodehouse and Saki. Perhaps the Edwardian era lingered into the early 1950s. I am far-sighted and wore glasses and had a slight squint, which was surgically corrected at age 16. This made me rather self-conscious and diffident as a child. I have worn contact lenses since the age of 26.”

As a student, he says, he was “probably conscientious rather than studious. My father was Irish, so humour loomed large in family dynamics. Few schoolmasters made a lasting impression, although one of them taught me how to write (or tried to). I can remember nothing in my childhood that pointed in the direction of psychology.

“Later on, of course, I was influenced by several psychology teachers. My MA supervisor was Hubert (Barney) Sampson, a graduate of McGill University and inaugural professor of psychology at the University Auckland – but also an alcoholic!”

Corballis suggests that as an undergraduate, he was “fairly gregarious and conscientious but with no clear sense of direction. I started out in engineering, passed the first year, but then switched to conjoint science and arts, as a career in engineering did not appeal. (I was assigned a mentor who was a world authority on prestressed concrete).”

After he completed a BSc and then an MSc in mathematics at the University of New Zealand, he says, “I had been advised that I might be suitable for actuarial work, so I found employment in an insurance firm and enrolled in an actuarial course by correspondence from London; I had been told that a master’s in maths would exempt me from the first year – but I
then learned that this did not apply to master’s degrees gained in the colonies!

“But by then I had discovered that actuarial work looked about as appealing as prestressed concrete. I had also briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a cartoonist (as a student I did some cartooning for student magazines, and later for the NZ Listener), but somehow this didn’t pan out – a leading NZ cartoonist told me that it was a soul-destroying occupation!

“I resigned from the insurance company, took a job in the public service, returned to university at night, and completed BA in psychology – one of the few subjects I could major in by taking evening courses. I enjoyed it as a pleasing combination of science and humanities, and well suited to my dilettantish disposition, so I went on to an MA in psychology at Auckland and then won a scholarship to McGill for a PhD.”

McGill University, of course, was the home of renowned neuroscientist Wilder Penfield. However, says Corballis, “I saw Penfield once or twice but never met him. During my time at McGill, both as a PhD student and faculty member, I was mainly involved in experimental psychology and statistics rather than neuroscience, although we were all interested in brain function.

“My PhD adviser was Dalbir Bindra, who had varied interests and encouraged breadth of thinking, and was a wonderful and generous mentor. The dominant influence at McGill, though, was Donald Hebb who made lasting contributions to neuroscience (mainly theoretical). My own interests in neuroscience didn’t really begin until after I returned to Auckland in 1977, when I started working with split-brain patients (in the US and Italy), and later with brain imaging.

“Largely due to Hebb, the ethos at McGill strongly favoured independence of thought and freedom to explore ideas. One beneficiary was John O’Keefe, a classmate of mine at McGill, who last year was a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. So it was Hebb rather than Penfield who was the major influence.”

Corballis was in Montreal, first as a doctoral candidate and then as an academic at McGill, from the early 1960s until 1977. It was a turbulent time, with deadly terrorist attacks by the Front de Libération du Québec during the October Crisis of 1970 and, in 1976, the first electoral victory of the Parti Québécois. Did the arrival of a separatist government play any part in his decision to return to New Zealand? 

“Yes, it was turbulent. As New Zealanders my family and I always felt a little outside the issue, not really knowing which side to take, although I always felt some sympathy with René Lévesque and the French-Canadian cause. In 1976, I was telephoned by the vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, who told me he was trying to recruit ex-NZers who were in trouble spots, hoping they might return! At the time he had Québec and South Africa in his sights. In any event I succumbed, not without some misgivings – people told me I was committing academic suicide, but it wasn’t so bad! I have never regretted either my time at McGill or my return to Auckland.”

Thinking of Montreal in particular and Québec more generally, does Corballis find bilingualism – contested, politicised, incomplete or rejected – interesting from the point of view of his own discipline and research?

“I think bilingualism is very interesting from a neuropsychological perspective, although I have never worked directly with it. It seems that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages from an intellectual perspective, but I also worry that language creates silos that lead to conflict. That is perhaps an argument for bilingualism, but perhaps the world would be more at peace if we all spoke the same language! But on the other hand Auckland is now said to be the second-most ethnically diverse city in the world, after Toronto and just ahead of London, and we appreciate the blend of cultures and languages.”

Of New Zealand’s higher education sector, Corballis says that its universities “are underfunded but do quite well in international evaluations. The ethos is generally good, although increasingly challenged by commercial and monetarist policies – but this seems to be true everywhere. I have myself been reasonably well funded for research, but funding is tight, more so than in Australia, which is often the main focus of comparison for us.”

Since becoming an emeritus professor, he admits, “I have to say that I have a charmed life. Due to research funding, I am still employed half time, with few teaching or administrative obligations, and this provides ample opportunity for research and writing.

“Even before I semi-retired, teaching was relatively light. As at McGill, large student numbers mean that the faculty is large, and teaching can be spread fairly thinly. The downside is large classes, but I enjoyed lecturing to a large class and for many years taught introductory psychology to a class of around 1,000, and this has the benefit of expanding one’s knowledge base. It also forced me to try to explain things clearly.”

Corballis recently became one of Auckland’s Creativity Fellows. Asked to explain what this might involve, he laughs, “Good question! The university has established a Creativity Project with the aim of promoting creativity and the integration of the sciences and humanities.

“Here as elsewhere there have been government-sponsored efforts to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines at the expense of the humanities, and one of the aims of the Creativity Project is to insert the arts, so that STEM becomes STEAM. I was the second of four creativity fellows (the other three are international) apparently on the strength of my latest book, since the last chapter is entitled “The Creativity of the Wandering Mind”.”

He confides: “In practice it seems to mean that I am taken around small towns in NZ to give talks – and I am right now in Wanaka at an arts festival. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, set by a lake and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The autumn colours rival the Laurentians in Québec, although they are more gold than red. And the talk was booked out. (And I sold a few books).”

When not being feted at arts festivals in breathtaking alpine surroundings, Corballis lives in Auckland with his wife Barbara. “We were married in 1962 and she keeps me grounded. For several years we both took up pottery, she as a vocation and me as a hobby.”

Their elder son Paul, he adds, “is also in the School of Psychology at Auckland – his PhD is from Columbia University and he spent many years in the US. His research interests are fairly close to mine and we have occasionally collaborated. My younger son Tim is a writer, and is currently writer in residence at the Victoria University of Wellington. Between them they have produced three granddaughters, all aged six. Simone is Paul’s daughter and Lena and Natasha (identical twins) are daughters of Tim.

What gives Corballis hope? “People, I guess. We seem to live in an age where money means more than ideas – the Creativity Project is part of a resistance movement, although even that is in danger of being contaminated by the notion that creativity can be turned to profit. But I find natural resistance among students, many of whom are keen to learn about ideas.”

Karen Shook

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Reader's comments (1)

Good for Corballis. Of course it's good for our mental health to have a wide imaginative background -- many references from our past dips into the various humanities all zinging around inside us yet. They beg attention, said the poet Joseph Brodsky. That's what poetry is, the scaffolding for things to echo, reverberate. So, with good souls like Corballis and Brodsky, how is it that so many university departments taboo ref to any humanities -- as if all now need most to mire themselves most narrowly instead?

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