"Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last."
If the brain is not optimised for concentrated learning, as mine is clearly not, then perhaps it is optimised for something else. And if I observe myself in my natural learning habitat – the classroom – then that something which my brain is optimised for is almost certainly looking out of the window and thinking about something else.
I am pleased to read, therefore, that mind-wandering is not only useful, but frequently intentional. It seems that often, when we lose concentration, we do so on purpose. We scoot off down some by-way of thought and seek refreshment in other places. We are not absent, as the saying goes, so much as present elsewhere.
Why do we do this? There are several possibilities. One is social. The French philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote memorably in the 1980s about human ingenuity for resistance: citizens will resist coercive power (of governments; of employers; of teachers) in a variety of almost invisible but creative ways. They will carve out small times in their day which they use for their own purposes; they will cycle on the the footpath, walk on the grass, book holidays when their boss’s back is turned, or text friends under the desk while the teacher blathers about some idée fixe he or she has. Mind wandering, under this argument, would be a very quiet howl of protest.
But another possibility, equally interesting, is that the mind wanders in order to get somewhere else. It is a subtle approach to problem solving. There we stand, mouth agape, outwardly immobile, but inwardly burrowing toward something new. The mind knows better than we do how to reach something. Crossword puzzlers will be familiar with the non-striving mindset which often cracks hard clues, a sort of trance where the letters dance lightly in front of the mind’s eye, while the conscious mind, perhaps, drifts off to think about some other clue. All climbing to a great height, as I have noted elsewhere recently, is by a winding stair.
So I am not too down on my students if I see them momentarily abstracted from the hurly-burly of the classroom. If I see them gazing out of the window, I take it on trust that they are doing productive work by other means, whether careening and caulking in preparation for another journey, or submerged to incalculable depths like the whale in search of the giant squid, or just resisting my own white hot sermonising up there at the front of the class.