Driving home after a Tai Chi class tonight, I listened to part of an NPR interview with several psychologists. They talked about creativity, daydreaming, focused attention, the brain's default network.
The basic notion being discussed was that the brain has several ways of functioning. These aren't exhaustive, of course. Scientists are nowhere close to understanding the intricacies of how the brain works.
But common sense is in line with what sometimes is called "experiential focus" and "narrative focus."
One of the psychologists said it is like what happens when we drive a familiar route. We don't need to concentrate on where we're going and how the car is moving, because we've done it so many times before. Experiential focus is downplayed.
This frees the brain/mind to engage in narrative focus.
We muse about this and that; daydream; remember the past and imagine the future; create meanings; consider alternative ways our life might unfold; meander down unpredictable thought pathways. It is only if a child runs into the road, the driver ahead of us abruptly hits his brakes, or whatever, that we are quickly brought back into here and now sensory/doing reality.
However, I've also blogged about how "pure awareness" is at odds with what is known about the brain's default network and narrative focus.
Well, I guess it's still possible to believe in "pure awareness."
But whatever pure awareness is -- and again, I'm kind of vague about this -- this notion needs to be compatible with an emerging neuroscientific world view if it is to make sense to me.
The mind/brain filters unadorned reality markedly before perceptions become conscious. All the while, unconscious mental systems are churning away unrecognized, apparently laying the groundwork for interpreting those heavily filtered perceptions based on past experience and for taking action in response to some event.
How "pure awareness" enters into all this is a very open question. It sure looks like modern neuroscience is challenging some of the fundamental assumptions of spiritual belief systems.
This doesn't negate the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
To my mind (the only one I have), research such as I learned about in the Scientific American article simply helps us look upon meditative and contemplative practices realistically rather than idealistically.
Listening to the NPR program today, I came away with a more balanced understanding of why both unfocused daydreaming and focused attention are vital aspects of human experience.
We are meaning-making creatures. Our largely free-floating narrative focus is a creative source. It enables us to visualize fresh ideas, new directions, unexpected insights.
When I was deep into my meditative spiritual practice, I used to worry about my mind wandering. Back then I repeated a mantra as much as possible. What I was taught was that if we aren't focused on doing or thinking about something, we should stop the mind from wandering.
This now strikes me as unnatural, unproductive, and undesirable. Research described by the psychologists shows that what the brain is doing when it isn't focused on something specific is vital to our mental health.
Daydreaming is somewhat akin to the dreaming we do while asleep.
During this time the brain makes sense of events; finds meaning in experiences; organizes isolated sensory impressions into cognitive clusters; comes up with unconscious solutions to problems our conscious self is perplexed by.
It's difficult to believe that what the brain does naturally, the product of so many eons of evolution, is somehow counterproductive to human functioning. Yet many spiritual practices look upon the "monkey mind" as almost (if not actually) something evil.
We're supposed to be the rider of the mental elephant, the driver of the mental chariot. The mind is only to do what we tell it to do -- a decidedly unscientific notion. There is a time for focused attention, and there is a time for daydreaming, mind wandering, relaxed musings about this, that, whatever.
Here's a You Tube video about the default network. (Sound quality isn't great at times; still worth watching.)