Have you ever tried to brush your teeth with the opposite hand? It’s an ordeal. It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just clumsy. From twisting the cap off the toothpaste, to the squeeze of the tube, to the rhythm of the back and forth. The reason is because you’ve established a routine with your normal procedure. The cognitive, or thinking part is gone because it’s a habit. You’ve practiced whether you’ve realized it or not.
Think about driving. I bet you can’t remember anything about your commute this morning that is any different than the commute from yesterday or last week for that matter. What’s scary is when you figuratively wake up and you can’t remember the last two miles or so. You’ve been on autopilot.
Why does this happen? Maybe it’s obvious, but you do that so the brain can concentrate on tasks that are new or novel. Sports are the classic example. Practice enables for rapid reaction and frees up the mind to consider strategy or positioning. A baseball hitter before the game is given a scouting report of the pitcher. He knows the strengths and weaknesses and the likelihood of each pitch depending on the count. One ball and two strikes is probably a slider away, so don’t swing unless he throws a fastball. That’s the strategy, but once the ball is thrown, batting practice takes over.
As you’ve read this, your mind has oscillated between finishing and thinking about some other task. You might be bored by this entry or you might be unintentionally preparing for another activity that you need to do. Either way, you haven’t been completely devoted. And that’s OK and normal.
Sometimes when your mind is wandering, it’s because you’re filing away information that was spurred by the current subject matter. Our brains are not neatly organized. Neural pathways crisscross each other and unintentional associations are developed due to proximity within the brain. So when habits are formed, it’s somewhat of a fast track of these pathways – a straight line of sorts. But when you learn something new, such as brushing your teeth with your opposite hand, you create new pathways. It isn’t important for that activity (brushing teeth or reading a blog entry), but it is for other activities that require creativity. You are moving some associations around and changing the proxity of ideas inside your head. Give it a shot, what harm can it do?
John Tierney wrote Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind in the NY Times and I hit on similar aspects of it.
Working Thoughts 6/29/09
The Impact of a Good Story is Greater than the Effort to Tell It