In praise of ‘mind wandering’
The Psychologist Volume 24 Issue 2
I appreciate The Psychologist selecting as the first item on the letters page the critique offered by the Midlands Psychology Group of the current political enthusiasm for simplistic measures of happiness (‘Happiness – a distraction from economic fairness’ – vol 24 no 1, p.2).
I would like to comment on the linked subject of ‘National well-being and the wandering mind’, in the same issue, p. 13. This article reported on research by Killinngsworth, Gilbert et al on the basis of which the researchers concluded that ‘.. a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind’. I do not dispute research indicating that activities that concentrate the attention on the here and now – playing sport and sexual activity are prime examples – bring their own particular brand of happiness. But the idea that, overall, human beings would be happier without ‘mind-wandering’ is surely nonsensical.
An imaginary example: I am in the bar at a conference and I meet and chat with a man or woman I find sexually attractive. Should I ‘mind wander’ back to the past and reflect on what I have learned from experience about my state of mind following a one-night stand? Should I ‘wander’ forward to the future, when my current partner will surely ask me how I spent the evening? No! If I wish to maximise my happiness, I must resist ‘wandering’ and stay in the present, focus on nothing other than the thrill of attraction and way things are shaping up.
A real life example: I am getting dressed when I recall that I forgot to tell my partner that his sister phoned him yesterday evening while he was out. I make a mental note to send him a text once I am dressed. While I have been getting dressed my mind has ‘wandered’ continuously. I have been engaged in that ubiquitous human activity, so ordinary and yet so complicated to put into words, of remembering the past and projecting myself into the future with the memory of the past in mind.
Our minds, it seems, are made for this. Routine tasks do not require our full attention and, unlike those of other species, our minds can range far and wide. For some of us, this itself is cause for happiness. Yes, to reflect on the past may evoke feelings of unhappiness. Yet not to do so is to rule out the possibility of learning from experience, which the eminent psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion thought was the most important human capacity of all. Yes, to muse on the future may evoke anxiety or even dread. But it may equally engender the wonderful experience of joyful anticipation. And without the willingness to let the mind wander, would there be any great works of literature, poetry or music?
The researchers state that their results indicate that ‘… people, at least in the USA, mind wander a lot (46.9 per cent of the time, on average)’. My own, equally subjective, evaluation is that, given the human significance of mind wandering, a figure of 46.9% does not constitute ‘a lot’. I would be interested to see an extension of this research to different populations, in particular to populations of artists and scientists engaged in creative and imaginative work, where I hypothesise that figures well above 50% would emerge as the norm.
Reference: Bion, W.R. (1962) Learning from Experience, London: Heinemann
Hope is implicit in the act of seeking therapy
Therapy Today Volume 21 Issue 10 2010
I would like to add a short observation to Denis O’Hara’s article on hope (Therapy Today, November 2010) and consider its implications.
The observation is that seeking counselling or therapy is in itself an act of hope.
A person seeks help because he or she feels that the process may do some good; why else would he or she come along? Conversely, a person who feels that there is no hope will not have the requisite motivation to seek help. (This observation applies, of course, only to those who actively seek counselling or psychotherapy. With clients who are ‘sent’ or motivated by an extrinsic factor, the situation is rather different.) Granted, the person walking through the door may feel profoundly sceptical, may be almost certain that the cause is lost and the therapy will be useless.
Once in therapy, he or she may at times be entirely in the grip of hopelessness and despair. In this situation, we could think of the client as having vested in the therapist the hopeful aspects of the self, unconsciously handing them over for safekeeping, perhaps fearing that destructive thoughts and impulses will otherwise wreak further destruction.
At such times, it falls to the therapist to keep in mind, and where appropriate to mention, the hope for relief and improvement that provided the initial motivation for the person to seek therapy. O’Hara’s reference to the need to act as ‘… a container, a holder of the client’s painful story until such time as the client is able to hold it himself’ is apposite.
However, there is a difference between feeling that one is supporting a client’s existing capacity for hope and thinking of oneself as needing to actively ‘engender’ or ‘co-create’ hope. The client may have forgotten his or her initial hopefulness. All the more important that we do not fall into the same error and see ourselves as needing to ‘engender’ or ‘co-create’ something that is already demonstrably in existence, implicit in the client’s decision to seek therapy and capacity to translate that decision into an active quest for help.
This story was written at the conclusion of a period of therapy with a patient who had experienced severe childhood trauma. It was one of those occasions when it didn’t feel right to even enquire about the possibility of publishing a paper on the basis of our work together. The priority was to avoid any intervention that might constitute an intrusion into an individual who had already been too much intruded upon.
After the work was finished, I found myself writing this short story, which was later published in Psychodynamic Practice. It represents an attempts to capture the emotional truth of my patient’s state of mind, without divulging any details of her situation.
Three weeks in October
Monday is tennis day. I’m doing all right until we come to the volley. ‘OK Jenny. Same as last time. Move forward to meet the ball. Take it out in front of you. You remember, yes? You have to get to the ball before it gets to you!’
Standing at the net, arms akimbo, every inch the stuffed dummy. The ball past me, gone. Tony taking me through the moves again; sideways turn, right leg across, racquet at shoulder height. ‘And bend your knees, Jenny! Breathe!’
‘OK’, I think, ‘Here we go. Leg-across-knees-bend-breathe.’ By which time…
Jesus, Jenny, not tears, not in your tennis lesson. You’ve got to be kidding! I fight them back. Another success story.
‘OK, Jenny, let’s go back to the baseline.’
Tuesday is therapy but I’m more on the tennis court than in the consulting room. I never was good at moving forwards, taking things on. Always shrinking away, back into my skin.
‘The same as here with me’, Linda says.
Was I thinking out loud? Either that or she’s started to read my mind. ‘What? Sorry…’
‘Just now. You were miles away.’
What does she want from me? I come twice a week, don’t I? I sit sourly, watching the minutes and money tick away.
‘I think you learned to be that way. I don’t think you were born that way.’
She’s not going to press. It’s up to me to tell her. Or not. I look down at my hands, dry-eyed.
Did you know that women cry 30 to 64 times a year, men 6 – 17 times? Men cry for a mere 2 – 4 minutes. Women cry for 6 minutes or more. The function of weeping remains a mystery. Weeping turns into full-blown sobbing 65% of the time for women but only 6% of the time for men.
‘I’ve lost you again, Jenny’, she says. ‘You’ve gone away. Anyway, our time is up. I’ll see you on Thursday.’
Thursday morning, 8.00 a.m. I’m not sure how to begin but I can either waste my time and money or have a go. I say, ‘I was thinking about Snowy’, though I hadn’t been, not really.
‘Snowy? Sounds white and furry…’ She smiles, for once.
‘My class rabbit, I brought her home. At school, the teacher used to let her out to lollop around our feet. We loved her, really. It was half-term so someone had to take care of her. I was worried about Mum, but I figured it was the kind of thing a good parent would do and, well, she liked to keep up appearances.’ I watch Linda’s face. I haven’t talked about Mum before. I bet she’s loving this. The Holy Grail of analysis! She looks serious, interested. Am I going to carry on? ‘I fed her carrots and cabbage. She was cute as cute, took them from my hand and munched away, whiskers quivering the way they do.’ I stop, wonder how long there is to go, what to make for dinner.
She says, ‘You start to tell me something, Jenny, then you’re gone. I wonder where you go?’
That night, I dream I am alone in a boat. From the other side of the lake a voice comes over the loud hailer, ‘Will boat number nine please come in. Come in number nine.’ But I do not come in. I stay on the far dark shore, watching and waiting.
Monday again, weather mild and cloudy, tennis clothes on, work clothes in rucksack, racquet on shoulder. Ringing Linda’s doorbell. A wait, longer than usual. Her face, surprised, then it dawns on me. ‘Oh God! I’ve got the wrong day, haven’t I? Oh no! I’m so sorry.’ Blood rushes to my face. What an idiot she must think me! Too late for tennis now; another total fuck up. Tuesday I leave a message cancelling. ‘I’m not going to be able to get along to my session, Linda. I seem to have come down with something.’
Thursday, right place, right time, ringing the doorbell. ‘About Snowy … Well, she started to look really sad, shut in her hutch all on her own. So I let her out. She perked up no end and it was great to see her hopping around in the garden. Tim and Elsie came out to watch as well. But when the time came to put her back in the hutch, we just couldn’t catch her. We chased her round and round. I guess we made some noise. Mum came out, blinding and cursing. Then, well, it wasn’t that Mum was faster than us, but she went after Snowy through the flowerbeds where we didn’t dare go. And cornered her…’
Tony’s voice. ‘Breathe, Jenny, breathe!’ My voice, thick and strange, my voice but not my voice. ‘She picked Snowy up and threw her over the back fence.’ More silence.
‘Things you want to forget, but can’t forget …’, Linda murmurs.
I can’t argue with that. I wait a while, gathering myself. Then I tell her about the shriek Snowy let out when she hit the concrete, the high wailing that went on and on, the dark, damp garden. And when Snowy was finally quiet, the three of us sobbing, me shushing the others, shushing them so that Mum wouldn’t hear.
‘When we went in, Mum was in front of the TV, her hand in a bucket of popcorn as usual. She gave us that look. ‘Don’t say a word or you’ll know what trouble really is!’ I look at Linda. I could cry now. I could make a start on my deficit. But if I start, will I ever stop?
Monday, it rains. The weather is changing. Tennis is cancelled. I go into work feeling sad. But that’s the day I meet Geoff, new lecturer, neuroscientist, specialism mirror neurones. I show him around, ask him if he’d like me to come by his office later and show him where I have lunch. All this moving forward, Tony would be proud of me! At lunch, I tell him about my tennis lessons. He asks me where I play, if I feel like hitting some balls with him on Saturday. He’d like to get to know the area, he says, see the local park. Nice guy. And, strangely, a nice guy who seems to like me.
Tuesday, on the way to Linda’s door, I rehearse telling her, ‘I think I’ve met a man I like’. Most probably she won’t approve, will tell me I’m not ready. Instead I tell her about the dream. She says it is true that she is calling me in, that I am afraid to answer the call, that the far side of the lake is a lonely and distant place. Then she asks me, ‘Why number nine?’ I shrug. ‘Just a number, I suppose.’ Try to think, Jenny. Did you live in the house that was number nine? Did something happen when you were nine?’ She smiles. ‘We don’t much believe in coincidences around here.’
Thursday’s session has begun and suddenly I am nine years old and my mother is in the room. ‘She filed one of her nails to a point. You know, a sharp point. She sat in front of the TV and preened it, admired it, first from one angle then from another.’ I grind to a halt.
Linda waits. It must take some patience, being a therapist.
‘I’m sorry I’m such a pain.’ She raises her eyebrows. ‘Well, you know, turning up on the wrong day, and this constant stalling. It must drive you crazy.’
‘You believe I judge you harshly, that I don’t see how difficult things are, how hard you try?’
Tears again, pressing to be released. ‘Tim copped the worst of it. Elsie was already in bed and I was good at keeping still and quiet but Tim would fidget or look at her. A look would do it, a frightened look, or a hungry look at the popcorn. “What do you think you’re bleeding well looking at?” I stop.
‘It sounds very frightening.’
‘Preening the nail was a warning.’ I try to remember to breathe. ‘Tim would run out, up to his bedroom, which was stupid of course because he was trapped there.’ I stop. She waits. ‘I heard him screaming.’ And I am crying, sobbing. ‘I knew what she was doing. She was gouging him with that nail, under his T-shirt, where the teachers wouldn’t see.’
She names it. ‘Not flashes of temper, then; premeditated cruelty. You need me to know that, to know the kind of thing you were up against.’ I nod and cry more, and then some more.
Sunday comes around. No rain, thank goodness. He looks different in his tennis gear, younger. Or is it me? I don’t remember when I felt this light and springy, bare knees, new trainers. Turns out he’s a good player, too good for me. Mostly he hits me easy balls but the odd unreachable shot spins to a sudden stop or flies by. ‘Look at you’, I say. ‘You have to let me know you could win every point if you put your mind to it!’ We laugh. The light is fading. We wander through the park to Starbucks. I think about taking his hand, wonder if he’s thinking the same. But it’s too soon. There’s no hurry. We order drinks, a cappuccino for him, a hot chocolate for me.