Memories, mind-wandering, and the evolution of language

“It was a dark and chilly winter’s night, but the crowd in the foyer of the Charles Luney Auditorium at St. Margaret’s College didn’t let that deter them. They were bundled up warm, busy chatting to their friends, and keen to get into the auditorium to hear Auckland University’s Michael Corballis present ‘Mental Travels in Space and Time’.”

Did you just get an image in your head of how that scene might have looked? If you’ve ever been into the Charles Luney Auditorium before, your mind will have travelled back there, remembered how it looked, and added in people in winter clothes and cold dark weather to suit the story.

If you haven’t been to this particular location, you might have remembered your old school auditorium instead, or maybe the foyer of the old Christchurch Town Hall or Isaac Theatre Royal, and pictured the scene as if it was happening there. Either way, regardless of how you imagined this scene, you based it upon your memories of a time you were in a particular location, and what you saw and heard, and how it made you feel.

You have just used your brain for mental time travel – using memories as a way to imagine ourselves in places and times that we are not currently in. That was the topic of Professor Corballis’ speech, held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Society Te Apārangi. The audience learnt about the hippocampus – the part of the brain which helps form memories of events, and which reinterprets those memories and helps us daydream and imagine ourselves in new places and times.

It’s because of the hippocampus that we can empathise, and put ourselves in another person’s situation, why authors and storytellers can come up with fictional made-up stories, and why readers sometimes get so caught up in the stories they are reading – our brain is letting us experience the story in the same way as it would if we were actually living it.

The audience also learnt what happens if the hippocampus is damaged. If this happens, you can’t form memories of the things you have done, but you remember skills that you have learnt. Could you imagine not having any memories of specific events? Or having others tell you that you have done something or gone somewhere with them, but you don’t remember doing it? Yet at the same time, you don’t have any difficulty remembering how to carry out skills such as walking, talking, or drawing? I can’t imagine that personally, but we heard about some individuals for whom this is normal.

Cover of The truth about language

The speech Professor Corballis gave was entertaining and informative, and these same characteristics come through in his new book The Truth About Language. I really enjoyed how accessible this book is – no matter your background, the conversational writing style is easy to read. With anecdotes, quotes from literature, and references to historical and contemporary linguistic theories, Corballis tells the story of how language came to be, and why it is so different in different countries and communities.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a linguist – you will still be able to understand the points Corballis is making, and enjoy the information found in this book. For those readers who do want a more in-depth understanding of the evolution of language, however, the book includes references to other theories and theorists, generous explanatory notes, and a comprehensive bibliography to guide further reading.

From the big bang to the different languages used world-wide in 2017, there are so many aspects of language – body language, pronunciation and sounds, grammar, and so much more. Michael Corballis’ The Truth About Language is a fun way to learn about this fascinating subject, and Christchurch City Libraries has a range of his other books that delve further into the subject. So, if language, the mind, and psychology are things you’re interested in, then check them out on our catalogue!

The Truth About Language: What it is and where it came from
by Michael Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN: 9781869408633

Find out more

The wandering mind: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

The Wandering MindLet’s start with an earworm:

I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.

These lyrics come from the annoying 1954 ditty The Happy Wanderer, and not only do they perfectly sum up the state of my mind (baggage included) for large parts of my day, but they will also stick in your head all day (should you be old enough to know this tune). And an earworm like this puts your brain into a mindwandering holding pattern, according to Michael Corballis in his packed presentation at WORD today.

What exactly are our minds up to, when any of the following things happen:

  • you arrive at work and cannot remember the drive there… all
  • people talk about rugby as if you should care
  • lovely IT people try to solve your computer problems by using acronyms, many many acronyms

Well my brain had better behave at this WORD event: The Wandering Mind by Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland, Michael Corballis, who will be discussing his book: The Wandering Mind (What your brain does when you’re not looking).

First up Corballis (who is regarded as New Zealand’s most eminent Academic Psychologist) assured us that it is OK to mindwander (collective little sigh of relief all round) and that, in his opinion, mindwandering promotes creativity.

But what about all that mindfulness that you have been so religiously cultivating these many long years past? Well, you might be a teensy bit happier, but we mindwanderers have knocked you right out of the creativity ballpark! So there!

Best of all, mindwandering is linked to story telling and according to Corballis:

We are the story telling species. And to story tell we need to mindwander. Back in time, forward in time, and into other peoples’ minds.

Then came the questions:

  • First one from the restless: It’s too hot in here, Can you open the door?
  • The second one from the worrier: Will something bad happen to me if I never mindwander at all?
  • The third one from a technogeek: How does technology affect mindwandering?
  • The final one from a Dyslexic daydreamer on the healing aspects of  mindwandering.

It is a terrifically interesting topic, presented as an engaging conversation between two old friends. And what is more, my mind did not wander, not even once!

Michael Corballis: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Michael Corballis

Cover of The wandering mindWhat (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

My visit will be too brief to take full advantage of the festival,  but I’ll be interested to hear what I can. I look also  forward to catching up with some old friends (some of whom will be at my talk), and seeing how Christchurch itself is progressing. I haven’t been there since the earthquake.

What do you think about libraries?

I love libraries.  Most of my working life involves electronic access to knowledge from my desk, but it remains a pleasure to browse in a good library and get the feel of books while we still have them. I think that the modern libraries I know have adapted well to the electronic age, and are pleasant and relaxing places to visit. Browsing in a library is in many ways complementary to browsing on a search engine (like Google) and sometimes more rewarding.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

Cover of Pieces of mindHmm. Here are some possibilities:
1. I started my university career as an engineering student at the University of Canterbury, but my main ambition at the time was to be a cartoonist.
2. I used to play squash with Ken Strongman but he always beat me.
3. I am addicted to cryptic crosswords, especially those in the London Spectator. Happiness is completing one in a single day.
4. I am not left-handed. (I don’t know why some people find this surprising).