Poetry and the Wandering Mind

J.W. Schooler. J. Smallwood, K. Christoff, T.C. Handy, E.D. Reichle, M.A. Sayette, ‘Meta-Awareness, Perceptual Decoupling and the Wandering Mind’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15 (2011), 319-26.


I found this a very interesting article, perhaps because I am easily distracted. Mind-wandering is defined as ‘engaging in cognitions unrelated to the current demands of the external environment’. Schooler et al. identify two key processes: ‘perceptual decoupling’ (the capacity to disengage attention from sensory information) and ‘meta-awareness’ (the capacity to take deliberate note of ongoing conscious activity). The findings are varied: mind-wandering interferes with the sensory task at hand (of course); awareness of engaging in mind-wandering is only intermittent (and the feeling of having been aware may be constructed in retrospect – we feel we must have known so we imagine that we did).
      Perhaps the most interesting thing for me is the suggestions about the functionality of mind-wandering. Yes, it interferes with concentration on the immediate environment. But the capacity to disengage, and the capacity to think about the contents of consciousness, may be uniquely human. Their product, mind-wandering, may be a by-product of evolved capacities, or it may have evolved functions in itself: for example (Schooler et al. suggest) it may help in the process of planning the future, in multitasking, in ‘’, and in creativity. There is, perhaps, a happy medium between the over-focused (narrow, limited) and the over-distractable (diffuse, never finishing things), but as far as we can tell it’s the latter which makes us different from the brute beasts.


What might a poem know about mind-wandering? This is one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnets, which imagines love as a battle in which his mistress’s displeasure sends his passion fleeing:

      The long love that in my thought doth harbour,
      And in my heart doth keep his residence,
      Into my face presseth with bold pretence,
      And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
      She that me to love and suffer
      And wills that my trust and
      Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence
      With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
      Where with all unto the heart’s forest he fleeth
      Leaving with pain and cry,
      And there him hideth and not appeareth.
      What may I do when my master feareth?
      But in the field with him to live and die?
      For good is the life, ending faithfully.

It is not a straightforward matter saying what this is about. Of course it is about the lover’s plight, and finds a painful but humorous conclusion, that the courageous thing to do, in a hopeless fight, is to die bravely. Since this is a close imitation of a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch (as many of Wyatt’s love poems are), it is also about a relationship with earlier poetry. The yield of this aboutness is not so clear, but Wyatt is exploring the way in which a lover’s voices is composed out of other voices, and the way that the voice of English poetry may find itself within and around the achievements of other languages.


However, it often feels, when reading poetry, that we’re doing well when we get beyond the first level of aboutness and see something else (‘subtext’ is often the word used) emerging. Wyatt’s image of the ‘heart’s forest’ is very arresting. It is not there in the Petrarch. It represents the inward recesses of the human as a tangled, place. The poem, I think, finds itself somewhere unexpectedly sharp-edged as a metaphor turns out to be very suggestive about what the mind and its emotions are like.
      Towards the end of the poem I think there is another shift of attention. This depends quite a bit on other poems by Wyatt, and on the ways in which critics have got used to thinking about Wyatt. He often manages to find resonance between the servitude of love and the servitude of the subject in Henry VIII’s court. The shift of gender towards the end gives us a male master (the heart, despite being fearful of the lover, still rules the speaker’s life), a battlefield metaphor that suddenly seems a bit more literal, and a loaded political word: ‘faithful[ly]’. The poem seems again to find itself doing something different from its primary ostensible business.


Is this poem mind-wandering? On the one hand, it seems to lose focus on the presumed perceptual business, and it begins exploring topics where we might see creativity, planning, awareness of the dangers around (all positive reasons for mind-wandering in general). On the other hand, we might credit this as the poem’s main outcome, the benefit of its process, perhaps even its – not the result of a failure to keep on task. Furthermore, the mind that’s wandering is not simply the author’s mind, since as a reader I was aware of helping with the wandering; and although a poem might look like a representation of a thought-process, it is not a mind however much it likes to wander.
      Perhaps a better question would be: what does this poem think (or know) about mind-wandering? Between writer, text, and reader, I think, there is a pretty deep exchange about the benefit, hazard, inevitability, pattern, purpose (etc.) of the human tendency to deviate from the point. It seems likely that literature will celebrate the benefits of thinking outside the moment; it could not exist without that capacity and it may train that capacity.

i.e., removing habituation effects, so old stimuli are treated as new – which may perhaps be useful in keeping the mind fresh and active.
i.e. teaches
i.e. unbridled lust
i.e. his love’s business, wooing
The word-play on ‘hart’, i.e. deer, helps: in a hunting forest, a deer flees from death in fear. It’s not really the hart’s forest at all.
This is a fraught, old, often dormant topic in literary criticism. It is not easy to work out how to value an author’s probable intention, or indeed what that might have been. Ideas like mind-wandering, diversion, meta-awareness might open that can of worms somewhat.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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