The Buddhist idiom “monkey mind” does not require years of contemplation to understand. It explains itself quickly to anyone who attempts the most basic meditative practice: closing the eyes and concentrating solely on the breath. By the second or third exhalation, your attention will have shifted -- if not to an itch, or the aftertaste of your most recent meal, then to some memory, plan, song lyric, etc., and then to another, until you remember to focus on the flow of the breath.
Whereupon it will all start up again. The human mind, in the Buddha’s words, moves “just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go, only to seize another….” The simile is all the more fitting given that he spent years meditating in the forest. (I take it by implication that the mind also makes shrill noises and scratches itself a lot.)
Twenty-five hundred years and a good deal of laboratory research later, Michael Corballis’s The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking (University of Chicago Press) has little to say about taming, much less transcending, the restless mind. Corballis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, wants to reconcile us to the mental flux through a review of scientific research on the neurobiology behind ordinary awareness. From his perspective, wandering attention is necessary and even beneficial for humankind, in spite of the disapproval of authority figures for countless generations.
Central to the author’s approach is what he calls “mental time travel” -- meaning, in part, the human ability to remember the past and anticipate the future, but also (more importantly, perhaps) our capacity to shift attention away from immediate experience for considerable periods while focusing on our memories, plans and worries.
This power is a blessing and a curse, and Nietzsche suggested that it gives us reason to envy the beast of the field, which “springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus is neither melancholy nor weary.”
But that’s just human vanity talking. A variety of methods are available to record the flow of blood and bursts of neural activity within the brain -- and some can be used on lab animals as well as hospital patients. Corballis reports on experiments with rats that have learned their way through a maze to a feeding spot. The effort sets off “sharp-wave ripples” among the brain cells dedicated to tracking a rat’s location. But the activity may continue even after the rat is done, “as though the animal is mentally tracing out a trajectory in the maze,” the author says.
Perhaps this is not so surprising, since “for a laboratory rat, being in a maze is probably the most exciting event of the day.” But there’s more:
“These mental perambulations need not correspond to the paths that the rat actually traversed. Sometimes the ripples sweep out in a path that is precisely the reverse of the one the rat actually took. It may be a path corresponding to a section of the maze the rat didn’t even visit, or a shortcut between locations that wasn’t actually traversed. One interpretation is that the ripples function to consolidate the memory for the maze, laying down a memory for it that goes beyond experience, establishing a more extensive cognitive map for future use. But mind wandering and consolidation may be much the same thing. One reason that we daydream -- or even dream at night -- may be to strengthen memories of the past, and allow us, and the rat, to envisage future events.”
On that point, at least, our difference from the humble rodent is one of degree and not of kind: the human brain undertakes (and absorbs information from) a much wider range of activity, but the same part of the brain -- the hippocampus -- serves as the hub for the neural networks that enable “mental time travel.”
What does distinguish us, of course, is language, which among other things enables storytelling and more complex forms of social organization than those possible for even the most sophisticated chimpanzee community. So the human brain finds itself navigating any number of mazes, many of its own creation. Zoning out while someone is speaking, then, is not a solely a function of overburdened powers of attention reaching their limit. The wandering mind is part of a range of phenomena that includes dreaming, fantasy, hallucination and creativity -- all of them products of the brain’s constant obligation to shift between levels of experience and directions of “time travel.”
Corballis makes the point with a range of biological, medical and anthropological references in a casual style that sometimes just barely holds things together. One or two chapters might have been removed without it making much difference, as would the jocular bits about whether the reader is still paying attention. (“Yes,” reads my note in the margin, “because irritation wonderfully concentrates the mind.”)
While interesting on the whole, the book leaves completely unaddressed the question of whether there is any difference between a mind wandering under its own powers, so to speak, and one that’s grown accustomed to constantly increasing bombardment. Where the monkeys used to swing from vine to vine, they now run the risk of colliding in midair, distracted by all the beeps and buzzes coming from their smartphones.
America and much of the world have been transfixed by recent events in Baltimore. What’s most important, however, comes after the cameras leave.
More than 50 years ago, Americans also were riveted as dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on the marching children of Birmingham, Ala. Participating in that march was the most terrifying experience of my life. Even so, it was not the hardest.
The toughest experiences came in the next 50 years, working to change the educational and socioeconomic systems that still exclude far too many Americans from real opportunity. At my university, students and staff work every day with hundreds of inner-city teenagers who are first-time offenders, providing them with guidance around the clock. These children and so many more need our support now more than ever.
As one of my students said to me recently, the Baltimore story -- which is the American story -- should remind us that issues related to poverty and inequality, crime and opportunity are not about “those people.” They are about us -- all of us.
How we react to events like those in Baltimore speaks volumes about our values. We know we must do much better, especially for people who have not had a chance to thrive in our society. Americans -- not just in Baltimore but across the country -- have an opportunity now to ask difficult questions and take long-term action.
Universities have an especially critical role to play as community anchors, educators and researchers. A quote from a 1923 edition of The Daily Princetonian sums up our responsibility as aptly today as it did the day it was penned: "We are almost the only section of the population which has the leisure and opportunity to study the controversial questions of the day without bias, and to act accordingly. The power of today is in our hands.”
The future will depend heavily on universities -- not only the policies we shape but the leaders we produce. Historically, one of America’s greatest strengths has been our ability to look squarely at our problems and to make hard changes. To do so often requires struggle, and we have a responsibility to embrace that struggle. To do so is a fundamental part of the learning and growing process -- and it is fundamental to changing issues of systemic injustice and inequality that are neither new nor isolated.
We have made tremendous progress since the 1960s; the fact that I can write this as the African-American president of a predominantly white university is testament to that. But recent events have reminded us just how uneven opportunity, power and justice in this country remain.
At a recent campus forum, one professor contrasted the quick disaster of a riot to the slow disaster of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood -- a site impacted by failed public and private policies since the 1930s. That slow, devastating deterioration, combined with the heightened effects of discrimination during the War on Drugs, boiled over into the West Baltimore riots on April 25.
Our responsibility as educators is to help our students -- young citizens and voters, future leaders and parents -- understand the context of recent events. The liberal arts, especially the humanities and social sciences, are powerful tools for shedding light on the challenges we face in this country. Universities must serve as models -- and actual spaces -- for talking about sticky issues of race, inequality, authority and fairness. How do we eliminate inequity if we don’t even know how to talk about it?
We recently started a program on campus to coach first-year students in intercultural communication. While the INTERACT program is completely voluntary, it reaches students who would not naturally gravitate toward such programming, often because they grew up in communities dominated by a single race or class and are uncomfortable interacting with peers different from themselves. Upperclassmen serve as peer recruiters and promote the program on their residence hall floors and in casual encounters, rather than just at multicultural events or among groups focused on diversity.
Many of my students first confront issues of race or class when they work at one of our partner schools in Baltimore. Whatever their race or background, our students often see themselves in their younger counterparts, but they also recognize that they have advantages these children have never had. Too few Americans understand what children in such circumstances experience long before they reach their teenage years.
Universities need to create more opportunities for students to connect with people in circumstances vastly different from their own and to relate what they’re learning in classes about justice, politics, economics and history to real work in the community. Our BreakingGround initiative, which works closely with the national American Democracy Project, does just that. Through the initiative, engineering students have built models of water infrastructure for the city of Baltimore, English students have performed research and service to advance childhood literacy, and American studies students have documented the proud history and decline of the industrial neighborhood of Sparrows Point.
Other students, recent alums and staff members work with hundreds of first-time offenders through our Choice program, a community-based initiative that supports and empowers youth through a host of services. Recently the program has been bringing together youths and police officers for structured conversations and the joint creation of a tile mosaic for a public space. Such initiatives build trust between communities and police and can, ultimately, save lives.
But even with abundant opportunities for engagement, students often have to be pushed to get beyond their comfort zones. Even at UMBC, where students from all walks of life and more than 100 countries study alongside one another, we have to work to get people to talk openly about race and socioeconomic differences. I often wonder if universities are doing enough. We are having renewed conversations on our campus about how we can deepen our ties to the community and keep issues of inequality and inequity at the forefront of our teaching and service.
I know we must remain vigilant. The limelight will predictably fade, but the challenges will not. The power of today is in our hands.
My employer, the University of Houston, has been in the news: after much hemming and hawing, UH confessed it has forked over $135,000 (as well as $20,000 to the agency representing him) to the actor Matthew McConaughey to speak at next week’s graduation.
The money seems to have been well spent: our brand-new stadium, which stood half empty during the football season, is filling up for this event. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the money could have been spent otherwise. Given that our university advertises itself as the House That Innovation Built, why not use the honorarium as seed money for a time machine? After all, McConaughey managed to bounce through time in Interstellar.
I know, I know: What does a liberal arts professor know about the mechanics of time travel? Not much, I admit. But being a liberal arts professor has taught me a bit more about the mechanics of the Western tradition, the great conversation, the classical canon -- or whatever label you want to slap on the great books I have taught for more than twenty-five years. Reading is just another kind of time travel, of course. And having read and taught these works, I’ve come to see them as little more than a glorious series of commencement speeches. Some of these speeches are longer, some shorter, some in rhyme, some in prose, some pretending to be history, others posing as fiction, but all offering advice on how to live our lives.
What if we could bundle a few of these figures into our machine and bring them to our stadium to speak? While our engineers are working out the kinks -- don’t forget the airbags! -- here are a few previews.
Niccolò Machiavelli: “It’s good to be here. Honest. Honestly honest. I know: Why trust the author of The Prince? Easy: if you had the Medici family as an employer, you’d be honestly glad to be sweltering in this stadium, too. Let me share with you the knowledge I’ve acquired through long experience of politics, extended reading in antiquity and a recent jab at gardening. Primo, it is a general rule about men and women that they are ungrateful, fickle liars and deceivers -- except, that is, for the men and women, garbed in your magnificent robes, sitting here today in this great arena!
“Secundo, never forget that fortune might be like a river, but the job market in the humanities is like the plumbing at my place in Lombardy: nonexistent. If you wish to succeed, keep in mind it is good to be feared, but it’s even better to have a balanced investment portfolio.
“E terzo, keep in mind that how we live is so very different from how we ought to live. And so, he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation. This is why the English majors out there should get up now and enroll immediately in your school’s hotel and restaurant management program.”
Franz Kafka: “I shouldn’t even be here. As I explained to your emissaries, my one wish was to die in obscurity. Take my friend Max Brod. Please. No, seriously, this is why I asked my friend Max to burn all of my writings. He didn’t, it turns out. Max, if you’re out there, we need to talk. Let me level with you: when I learned about this invitation, I was moved. Until, that is, I was floored by this sudden fear that I’d show up today as a beetle. With two e’s. And not the ladybug sort of beetle, but the sort that just sends shivers down your spine. A roach, in fact. Dad, Mom, Sis: if you’re out there, look, I’m not a roach!
“But I did wake up with two strange men in my hotel bedroom. All of this didn’t give me much time to prepare my remarks -- the men seemed nice enough, but they ate my breakfast -- but I do have some advice. As you march into the world, armed with your endearingly ridiculous optimism and utterly unfounded confidence, bring a book along with you -- but the right kind of book.
“We ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. I’ve always said that if the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? Oh, I see the president is waving to me: my time seems to be up. I wonder where those nice men from breakfast went. I’m sure they’ll find me.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one. ‘There was a madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours…’ Wait, I see several hands raised. What is that? You have heard this one? Talk about eternal recurrence, right? You know the punch line, then: the madman, searching for God and failing to find him, announces, ‘We have killed him,’ throws the lantern to the ground and blurts out, ‘I have come too early, the news has not yet reached your ears.’ Were he to see the wires running from your ears to those black wafers you carry everywhere, our madman, I think, would shatter yet another lantern. The news is still here, but still cannot be heard.
“You know, I used to say there are no facts, only interpretations. Don’t tell me -- you’re wondering, ‘What about student debt?’ Well, yes. But remember that if you stare at your bank account for too long, your bank account begins to stare back at you. For this reason, you must live dangerously! Love fate! Reject who you are: we must constantly overcome ourselves to live fully. Overcome, even -- especially! -- all you have learned at this august institution. I always said that in heaven all the interesting people are missing. How much truer for the academy.”
Jane Austen: “What dreadful hot weather we are having! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance. I scarcely recognize myself in the colors of your splendid university. But you do not recognize me at all, of course. How could you? You see, it was only a short while ago that I learned from your university’s Jane Austen specialist that posterity has not a single portrait or drawing of me.
“A certain Mrs. Woolf, I also learned today, has made much of women needing a room of their own, just as she made much of the creaky door pivot and desk blotter that allowed me to hide my writing from the world. But here I must make much of my own view: I do not regret these constraints.
“Lean in I did -- a charming phrase -- but not so far as to lose my balance. Family and friends often accompanied me as I wrote; they were my best and most critical readers. Yes, my freedom was frustratingly limited, but these limits also reminded me of duties I always treasured as a sister, daughter and aunt, as a friend as well as a writer.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. But let me add that a single man or single woman in search only of a good fortune has misunderstood the ends of a good life. As I once wrote, know your own happiness. And want for nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name. Call it hope.”
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of Boswell's Enlightenment (Harvard 2015).