In Praise Of Mind Wandering

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A passage from a beautiful essay in Slate about reading, by Andrew Piper:

“Tonight I will read to my children before they go to bed. Although the ‘bedtime story’ was only invented as a common practice at the end of the 19th century, there has always been a durable physiological connection between sleep and reading. Unlike the nursemaid’s oral tales that were meant to frighten children into staying in their beds, the slightly monotonous rhythm of parents’ reading aloud is imagined to be a more effective way of accessing the unconsciousness of sleep.

Once the circus of getting ready for bed is over (why pajamas are so hard to put on is a mystery), we search out a clear plot of carpet and choose a book to read. Maybe it will be something from the Frog and Toad series or Tinker and Tanker or, the house favorite, George and Martha.

As I begin to read, the kids begin to lean into me. Our bodies assume positions of rest, the book our shared column of support. No matter what advertisers say, this could never be true of the acrobatic screen. As we gradually sink into the floor, and each other, our minds are freed to follow their own pathways, unlike the prescribed pathways of the Web. We read and we drift. ‘The words of my book nothing,’ writes Walt Whitman, ‘the drift of it everything.’

New research continues to emphasize the importance of mind wandering for learning. It turns out that not paying attention is one of the best ways of discovering new ideas. Reading books, whether silently or aloud, remains one of the most efficient means of enabling such errant thinking. As our bodies rest, our minds begin to work in a different way. New connections, new pathways, and sharp turns are being made as we meander our way through the book, but also away from it.

There is no way to tell if anyone is actually paying attention anymore as I read, including myself. This seems to be one of the great benefits of reading aloud, that you can think of something else while you do it. We may be holding the book together, but our minds are no doubt far apart by now. The fairy tale is the first story of childhood because it tells of such leaving behind (parents and home), of entering the dreamscape of the woods—and the mind. It tells of the crooked path of change. How can one know where reading books ends and dreaming in books begins?” (Read more here.)

Reading researcher Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University also writes, in her book Proust and the Squid, about how reading makes room for thought—how achieving fluency in reading creates time for the reader to think about the meaning of what she’s reading and connect that meaning to her own life.

Do you ever come up with new ideas as your mind drifts while reading?

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One Response to “In Praise Of Mind Wandering”

  1. Jay says:

    Good post!

    It happens quite a bit if I am actively reading something slowly.

    I liked the book, “Proust and the Squid.” I didn’t realize how difficult it is for us to read. It is a learned skill that takes a long time to master.

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