Do you sometimes listen to somebody and suddenly realize you haven’t been paying attention and have completely missed the last few sentences? I have to admit that my mind starts wandering quite often: something I remember, related topics, a new recipe…etc. At the conference on cognitive neuroscience I attended in Australia there was a fascinating talk about mind wandering. The speaker gave us (the attendees) permission to let our minds wander during his talk, but it was one of the few talks in which my mind wandered very little, although that might have been due not only to the interesting topic, but also to the gifted speaker, Professor Michael C. Corballis from New Zealand. We can feel reassured about our mind wandering away from time to time. In fact, it has been suggested to slip away from the ongoing task as much as about half the time. When our mind starts to wander, a wide-spread network gets activated in the brain, interestingly involving more different regions than when we’re focusing on a task. For mental time-travel (remembering past moments or imagining future occurrences), the hippocampus, a structure that closely assembles a seahorse and which is important for the formation and consolidation of memories, is crucial. The kind of brain activity picked up from the hippocampus in mind-wandering is similar to the activity measured in dreams and hallucinations and is now thought to be responsible for creative thinking. Mind wandering furthermore provides an adaptive advantage in predicting, shaping and planning future situations, a kind of prospective memory.
It has also been seen that mind wandering influences our performance in complex ways and that an attentional state that is too focused might as well lead to more errors than a slightly more relaxed state of mind. So the next time you don’t achieve to be completely focused all the time, don’t worry too much about it. Also, it’s good not to always focus our attention on something. The next time you wait for the bus or catch the metro, maybe look around and just let you mind wander and possibly achieve some interesting new combination of thoughts that lead to a great new idea instead of catching up on facebook via your smartphone. Personally I enjoy letting my mind wander when my body is moving, while I’m running or cycling or walking.
The recipe for this polenta pie was created before I went to the conference, if not, it might as well be the result of some intense mind wandering during one of the more boring talks… It requires few ingredients and is quick and easy to make. The polenta will be rather soft when it comes out of the oven and firm up with time. We had some immediately and took some for a picnic the next day which we enjoyed cold. We couldn’t say which one we preferred.
- 1 cup polenta, instant or normal
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1-2 big tomatoes or a large handful of cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
- 200g/7oz Feta cheese
- 1 small handful fresh basil leaves
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Olive oil for greasing the pan
Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF. Start by combining the polenta and the vegetable broth in a large pot. Bring to boil while you stir constantly. Instant polenta will only take a few minutes (I only found instant), normal polenta might take up to 45 minutes. Grease a large springform or pan with the olive oil and pour the polenta inside. Cut the tomatoes into slices (or cherry tomatoes into halves) and distribute them on top of the polenta. Add the olives and the feta cheese. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and oregano. Bake on the middle rack for 20-30 minutes, then garnish with the fresh basil.