The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking, by Michael C Corballis

Available now at bookstores nationwide from Monday 19 May. Author Michael C. Corballis presenting at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Saturday 17 May at 2.30pm.

Does your mind wander? Sometimes I doubt cv_the_wandering_mindwhether mine will ever come home. What does the brain do while our mind is wandering?

This well-written and engaging book introduces the reader to the research to explore what actually happens in the regions of the brain where dreams, religion, fiction, fantasy, but also creativity and imagination, lurk. Corballis begins by considering how minds wander − what occupies them when not focussed on a particular task. This leads to discussing some of the fundamentals of neuroscience.

The layered, complex thing we call memory is first. What is a memory? What types of memory do we have? We remember events, skills, and facts in different ways. There are fascinating, although tragic, examples in which parts of the memory are damaged, and an interesting discussion of the development of false memories. I was pleased to find that Hillary Clinton and Ronald Reagan had false memories just like me.

Time is a confusing concept. Corballis takes the reader through an examination of how time is understood, or maybe at least partly formed, in the mind. Is it only humans who can mentally wander forward and back through time? This leads to the next chapter, dealing with the Hippocampus and its role in remembering, and mentally meandering through, time and place.

brainsAnd now the book deals with several interlocking concepts. Can we share minds − for example by telepathy? The enormous importance of stories in the individual and collective consciousness. And the vital invention of language, and the way that language is involved with thinking.

Dreams and hallucinations are related. Corballis does not take the interpretation of dreams very seriously, and discusses Sigmund Freud’s theories about dreams in an entertaining way which leaves the conclusion in no doubt. The last chapter, on the creativity of the wandering mind, is the one which spoke most to me. “Mind wandering has something of a bad press” as the author says, but it need not be a negative thing.

Throughout the narrative is based on reporting scientific research, and anecdote. In the early chapters I found myself asking “and then what” as a passage based on anecdote ended, then happily finding the thread taken up later. The writing is well structured and the flow encourages the reader to carry on. In many places the author uses what we know about the ways that animals brains work to illuminate the way that human brains and minds function, and lessons from the history of (particularly) psychology.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Auckland, a widely published scientist and neuropsychologist. This is the first of his books that I have read, and he comes across as an able scientific communicator as well. His writing is based on neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, which he leavens with a sharp wit, and uncomplicated yet clear and precise language. I must try to find some of his others.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking
by Michael C Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408114

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