Here’s a thought … Absentmindedness … is it a curse or a blessing?

Is it possible absentmindedness is a physiological function that allows us to accomplish tasks without thinking? I just read about how dolphins and whales sleep with only one half of their brains, leaving the other half awake to take care of business. After one side has slept, they switch so that the other side gets a chance to rest. Similarly, birds can sleep with one eye open. So, it occurred to me that perhaps our absentmindedness is a form of bird-brained-ness.

When we do rote work our minds are free to meander through a vast landscape of cognitive destinations. How often do you find you have arrived at your destination with no memory of how you got there? I mean sure, you know you drove to Costco, but do you actually remember the trip? There are times when I arrive in the garage, and can’t recall how or why. As life gets more and more complex I find my most creative thoughts occur while I mindlessly fold laundry, or wash dishes, or brush my teeth. For sure, all these tasks need doing, but I really don’t have to devote any real thought to doing them. So, in a way, the mindless quality of the task provides truly guilt-free time.

Off the top of my head, I would say we all benefit from this form of mindlessness. The real problems arise when we forget the left and right hands really do need to communicate so that one knows what the other is doing. They both need to be connected to a focused, functioning brain. It is all well and good to fold the laundry without thought, but putting it away really needs more attention. Otherwise early next week you will find your underwear neatly stacked with the dish towels, and realize why you are down to your last pair of underpants, and why your socks went missing … and here is where they ran off to.

One of my favorite family stories is a quintessential tale of absentmindedness, and the danger that lurks when it is coupled with old habits.  As a young man, my father was finally able to save up enough money to buy a new car. The car had the newest of gadgets … a cigarette lighter that you pushed in to heat up. Years later he could tell you every detail about that car. It really was his pride and joy, but the cigarette lighter was the best part. It was beyond cool to drive around, arm crooked out the window, hit the lighter, light your smoke, lean back, and smoke your smoke while driving with one hand.

Well, about a day and a half after he got his beautiful new car, he went to visit my mother … his new girlfriend … to show off his classy new ride. I gather that she was dutifully impressed. Later, as he drove back to school in a bemused fugue state, dreaming of their future together and enjoying the rush of young love, he leaned back, pushed in the lighter, lit his smoke … and out of habit … shook out the lighter like a match and tossed it out the window. So much for Mr. Cool.

He never recovered the lighter … in fact he didn’t miss it until the next time he went to smoke a cigarette and realized what he had done. But man, he loved to tell that story.

The absentminded nature of his action is understandable. We all seem to share the capacity to function without thinking.  I once went to vote in the midst of a fairly chaotic day, and discovered I still wore my bedroom slippers when I glanced down at the ballot sheet, and saw the fuzzy dear things peeking out from the bottom of my classy black slacks. This was long ago before the fashion was to wear bedroom slippers as a fashion statement. My mother always referred to these moments as loose couplings in one’s train of thought. Sometimes they involve bigger trains than others, but they are all part of what makes our stories interesting.

I guess it must be nap time … I have half a mind to continue, but really, I haven’t anything more to say.

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