Book review: Mind wandering? That may not be a bad thing

Author Moshe Bar and his book, Mindwandering. PHOTOS: BLOOMSBURY


By Moshe Bar
Non-fiction/Bloomsbury Publishing/Paperback/235 pages/$30.90/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

The human brain is often noisy.

And if you find yourself being unable to concentrate on the task at hand, it is almost always due to your mood. This, in turn, affects the state of your mind, which is by nature prone to wandering.

Mindwandering makes the case that letting your mind drift - an involuntary activity that takes up about half of one's waking time - is not necessarily always bad.

Mindful meditation can help quiet the active brain and allow one to regain one's sense of self and immerse in one's experiences.

If you are about to write this theory off as new-age claptrap, hold your horses - the author of the book is globally recognised cognitive neuroscientist Moshe Bar, who spent 17 years at the Harvard Medical School before starting a brain research institute in his native Israel.

Bar himself was a sceptic at first, noting with amusement that he "was not very enlightened" when he thought about what to have for lunch in the middle of a meditation, or how he stole away for conversations in a silent retreat.

He has, however, become a convert after experiencing first-hand the benefits of mindful meditation and the impact it can have on lives.

In Mindwandering, Bar dissects the nuts and bolts behind how the mind behaves.

He argues that mindwandering can have uplifting benefits - but also debilitating side effects. Letting your mind drift can foster creativity, bolster your mood and broaden ideas. This makes it optimal for brainstorming sessions.

But on the other hand, it also takes your focus away - not good when there are impending deadlines or important tasks like tax filings. Losing your grip on your mind can also worsen anxiety and result in depression.

Bar argues that mindwandering allows you to learn from "imagined experiences" - say, picturing a job interview in your head before the fact - which can prepare you for the future.

"States of mind" are dynamic and will affect mental well-being. The elusive trick is to find the optimal balance in perception, attention, thought, openness and mood.

Mindful meditation will help one feel more grounded, present and sensitive to one's thoughts and emotions. This allows the practitioner to develop ease in entering the best "state of mind".

The act of being present means being "in the moment" and appreciating life as it is without the constant itch to check your phone.

I can attest to the benefits of at least a five-minute meditation every morning. I began doing so months ago, before I picked up this book, on a friend's recommendation and after watching the Netflix documentary, Headspace Guide To Meditation (2021).

Bar's work helps to explain scientifically why meditation can bring more focus not just in work, but also in other aspects of life, thereby creating a virtuous circle of motivation and positive energy.

His book is occasionally peppered with jargon that ironically made my mind wander, and his train of thought itself is somewhat meandering.

But it should be required reading for anyone who is interested in how the mind works and to understand meditation in the context of neuroscience, philosophy and psychology.

If you like this, read: The Power Of Regret - How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward by Daniel H. Pink (Riverhead Books, 2022, $30.90, buy here, borrow here). Pink cites neuroscientific research in positing that regret, often regarded as a negative emotion, can be harnessed to spur positive outcomes.

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