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Neuroscientist Moshe Bar’s new book discusses how we can harness our noisy and unfocused brain

Moshe Bar

Moshe Bar | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

Moshe Bar, an award-winning neuroscientist, writes in his latest book, ‘Mindwandering: How it Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity’, about our unfocused mind. We daydream, and self-chatter for much of our waking hours; but we can, in fact, harness our noisy brains to improve creative thinking. In this interview, Bar, who until recently headed the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, says we tend to label the familiar and instead explore our world for novelty. “But not everything that is familiar should be put aside. Some things, like the stories your daughter, brings from kindergarten, or a beautiful flower, deserve our full attention afresh in every encounter.” Edited excerpts:

Moshe Bar has a Ph.D in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles
Won the 21st Century Science Initiative Award from the McDonnell Foundation, and the Hebb Award from The International Neural Networks Society
Former Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital
Edited the book ‘Predictions in the Brain: Using our Past to Generate a Future’

Evolution has taught our minds to wander: 47% of our waking time is taken up ruminating about the past and worrying about our future. Yet, you say, there are evolutionary benefits to mindwandering. Could you explain?

Yes. Simply put, there is good mindwandering and there is bad mindwandering. The aspects of mindwandering that are less desirable include, first, the fact that mindwandering often takes us away from experiencing the present. Almost half of our waking hours, we are not where our body is! Centuries of practice, like meditation, is aimed at bringing us back to the now, teaching us to fight the mind’s inherent tendency to wander.

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Other reasons why mindwandering could be less desirable have to do with its possible content and nature. When worries and anxieties fill up our minds, it is often not constructive, yet there is very little we can do to stop those thoughts voluntarily. It is our mind, yet we are not its masters as we would like to think. Finally, narrow wandering, surrounding the same topic over and over, like ruminations and obsessions with a single topic, ultimately exacerbate our worries and may result in depression.

Still, evolution is logical and the main reason it instilled the proclivity to wander in our mind is that it is otherwise a mental power tool for creative thinking, planning, and simulating possible scenarios so that we can learn from our imagination. I strongly recommend stretches of free-roaming mindwandering, without the guilt that modern society has associated with it so often. As I say in the book, mindwandering can be a total waste of time, or it can be a fountain of creativity and exploration, and it all depends on our state of mind.

‘Mindwandering: How it Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity’ by Moshe Bar

‘Mindwandering: How it Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity’ by Moshe Bar

You have said that for our brain to be this flexible, adaptable, agile, and efficient, it has to pay a price. What is the price?

The price of being so adaptive is that we get used to things, even when we do not want to or should not get used to them. This could be getting used to harmful and unjust situations for the sake of stability, like accepting bad relationships, bad leaders, or even just bad service.

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Similarly, we are also pretty efficient in getting used to the good things, therefore losing the initial pleasure we used to feel in them in the past. How often have you eaten an ice-cream mindlessly? Compare this to your first ice-cream, and perhaps you could re-live that initial pleasure. Our amazing ability to adapt is not specific to certain circumstances. It is up to us to recognise and distinguish the circumstances where we want to capitalise on our innate adaptability, and when we want instead to exert conscious control in trying to keep a fresh mind. This is called ‘shoshin’ in Zen Buddhism, meaning ‘a beginner’s mind’. Even when we cannot consciously control our flexible mind, mere awareness can take us a long way toward better understanding and acceptance of ourselves.

Our brains adapt because they are geared toward learning new things. That that is familiar teaches us nothing new, so we continue to explore our world for novelty. But not everything that is familiar should be put aside. Some things, like the stories your daughter, brings from kindergarten, or a beautiful flower, deserve our full attention afresh in every encounter.

Can you tell us more about the two opposing states of mind — ‘exploratory’ and ‘exploitatory’, both of which are vital for our well-being?

There are several tensions and trade-offs in how our brain works. One of the central ones is the tension between exploration and exploitation modes. In exploitation mode, we tend to prefer the familiar, the routine, and the safe. This helps us survive and allows us to exert less energy, but it also prevents learning and keeps us away from experiencing the novel.

‘In exploration mode, we are ready to sacrifice some safety for the sake of learning and experiencing.’

‘In exploration mode, we are ready to sacrifice some safety for the sake of learning and experiencing.’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

When we are in an exploratory state of mind, however, we seek the thrill, we are curious and creative, and we are open-minded and daring, even if it could potentially harm us. In exploration mode, we are ready to sacrifice some safety for the sake of learning and experiencing. Indeed, what distinguishes these two extreme states is our tolerance for uncertainty. What invokes thrill in an exploratory state of mind would result in anxiety when we are in an exploitatory state of mind. Our mind is dynamic, and we constantly shift between being more exploratory or more exploitatory, depending on context and circumstances.

There is no good or bad state of mind, but rather a state of mind that fits more or less the specific situation we are in. Just like the pupil in our eyes can open or close depending on the level of light around us, our entire mind can change to fit our environment. In some situations, exploiting the familiar is critical for our protection and survival. How would I have ever fallen in love with Varanasi if I did not allow myself to be an explorer?

‘Immersion is a gift waiting inside our brain’, you say in ‘Mindwandering’. What do you mean by immersion and how do we leverage it?

Immersion is a state of mind that is often overlooked, yet it is the main vehicle for living our lives to the fullest. Our mind can have various perspectives: we can be mindwandering when we shouldn’t and then miss the present; or we can be totally immersed in the experience, just experiencing, not thinking about anything, not planning, not wandering, not deliberating, and momentarily without a sense of self and time. Think, an exhilarating rollercoaster ride.

What is the ‘invisible gorilla test’ and what does it reveal?

I had forgotten this was mentioned in the book, must be my invisible gorilla moment... The invisible gorilla is an amusing yet highly informative and seminal demonstration, originated by Ulric Neisser, showing that our attention can be so total that we could reliably miss big events in our surroundings. If you were to count basketball passes executed quickly, you are most likely, as the demonstration goes, to miss a gorilla passing amidst the players.

This effect is so strong and reliable that it has even been exploited in commercials, fooling viewers by making them miss some major visual aspects of the scene in front of them, presumably because they have been so captivated by the product that the commercial is promoting. Such ‘blindnesses’, as we call them, have clear and important implications even for everyday activities such as driving while attending to one thing and not another. Indeed, it seems that many road accidents could be explained by attention-related biases.

More generally, such demonstrations, and there are many of them, help us understand better how we consume our environment. In spite of our subjective feeling that we see the world as it is, what Immanuel Kant called the-thing-in-itself, our actual perception is a mixture of veridical information coming from our senses and information we have in memory such as expectations, fears, and desires that can bias our perception away from reality.


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2022 2:49:18 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/neuroscientist-moshe-bar-new-book-harness-brain-divya-gandhi/article65524474.ece