Thursday, June 25, 2009

On the benefits of being 'scatterbrained'

More than two decades ago when I was in graduate school, pursuing a PhD, I nervously carried a draft proposal of a topic that really excited me to a faculty member whom I looked upon as a potential dissertation advisor. A European with a reasonable command of English she was reputed to be sharp, cold, curt, and fastidious. She was all that and more. She spent no more than about ten minutes with me (she was extremely organized) and during that span, she browsed through my apology for a topic analysis, marked it all over in red ink, and left deep long gashes in it. With each stroke of her pen, my enthusiasm dropped several feet, and by the time I left it must have gone right through the ground and emerged from the other side of the earth. I don't recollect anything she scribbled on the paper other than the following words: "you are scatterbrained".


Man, those words have reverberated in my brain for more than two decades -- they hurt, and badly. Needless to add, I never pursued either the subject or the faculty member any further. She went on to become a highly reputed researcher in the field and is now a member of various important international bodies and a consultant to a number of large corporations. She also divorced her husband at that time. Yeah, snarky, but I had to get that in. And honestly, while she has published enough material to fill a large truck, there is not one thing there that sets one's heart racing. It is dull, boring stuff, bordering on the obvious. Meticulous, methodical, rigorous ... all that stuff. Somebody's got to do it, for the benefit of science, I guess, and she did it. Good for her, and for science. I'm not sure if anybody would ever want to read her workmanlike writing again; certainly not me.

Me, I checked out other faculty in the department, eventually quit, and got my PhD under the most wonderful advisor that anybody could hope for, at another university. And I had the time of my life researching what I loved in the manner I wished. I remained (and to this day) a scatterbrain, which quality turned out to be an asset in the field I eventually settled on.

Now, in an article titled, A wandering mind heads straight towards insight the esteemed Wall Street Journal waxes eloquent on the benefits of being what that august professor deemed 'scatterbrained'. Referring to major breakthroughs such as that of Archimedes, the article says,
These sudden insights, they found, are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically. "Your brain is really working quite hard before this moment of insight," says psychologist Mark Wheeler at the University of Pittsburgh. "There is a lot going on behind the scenes."
So, Professor Methodical had her own way, and I had mine, and never the twain would meet.
In fact, our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering and we've actually lost track of our thoughts, a new brain-scanning study suggests. "Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically," Dr. Kounios says. "There really are different brain mechanisms involved."
That was me.
By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.

"People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who reported the findings last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As measured by brain activity, however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."
So here's my advice to you, gentle reader. Go out, daydream your heart out. You're allowed to daydream at least one-third of the time, anyway, as per the article. Daydreaming is good for you, and for society. Daydreaming could lead to stunning breakthroughs that could improve mankind's lot. But even if it didn't, someone engaged in daydreaming is not committing crimes, driving dangerously, or causing any kind of harm to the world. Now there's a two-for-one deal: society wins even if nothing comes out of your daydreaming. And you've had a great time too!

I'm thinking of launching a non-profit organization called Society for the Promotion of Universal Daydreaming with a large potato for a corporate logo (and mascot), symbolizing the legion of daydreaming couch potatoes that have made the world a better place. ;-)

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