An End to Mind-Wandering (For Now)

Matthias Mittner, Guy E. Hawkins, Wouter Boekel, and Birte U. Forstmann, ‘A Neural Model of Mind Wandering’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 570-8.

Having written a longer post (here) about mind-wandering recently, I will handle this briefly, though it’s just as interesting. It is a bit more focused on brain imaging than the Seli et al. article I cited there, which means it includes a lot of stuff I (and the literary tradition) can’t really engage with in a nuanced way.
      One of the brain regions in question is the Default Mode Network which is (as the name suggests) really a combination of regions, and it keeps cropping up. I mentioned that last time too. Mittner et al., however, are interested in more parts of the brain and in the complex connectivity between them. They say that ‘it is essential for future studies to simultaneously collect data reflecting the involvement of the various neural components, which will require the development of better neuroimaging protocols’. Theirs is ‘an integrative framework’, which ‘attempts to explain how dynamic changes in brain systems give rise to the subjective experience of mind wandering’.
      Most tangible for my purposes, especially in the light of that earlier post which focused on the intentional quality of some mind-wandering, is their attempt to define (or at least pursue) ‘a neural and conceptual distinction between an off-focus state and an active mind-wandering state’. They take this ‘off-focus state’ to an extreme by bringing in the phenomenon of ‘mind-blanking’, wherein (I suppose) the switching off from the perceptual world doesn’t get anywhere.

This idea took me back to Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’. After feeling that in some ways I was not at all grateful to be re-entering its bleak world, I have decided that in the end I am very grateful, because I think it’s great. ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night’, he says; ‘Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare’. And then it cheers up. Oh, no, it, doesn’t! He lies in the dark, seeing ‘what’s really always there […] Unresting death’. Dread ‘flashes’, and then in the second stanza, ‘The mind blanks at the glare’. The poem’s rejection of consolation (Christian, classical) is gloomily thrilling. It has several little hints of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech, sardonically making its point that fine words are no use. As ‘light strengthens’, the day starts, and ‘work has to be done’, but mortality is still there.
      This is a perfect opposite to the Chaucerian dream-vision opening I described in my previous post. There, the process of going to sleep allows the mind to flourish into far-reaching imaginative explanations. In Larkin’s poem, the process of waking up leaves the mind ‘blank’ in the face of blunt truths. It’s inspiration, of a sort.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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