Mind wandering refers to the engagement in self-generated thoughts unrelated to the external environment. While a universal human experience (everyone daydreams or gets distracted), a view from the field of Psychiatry is that excessive mind wandering may be a key feature of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). At the same time, there are strong traditions in the arts for people to use mind wandering (whether the term is activated or not) as part of the creative process. Think stream of consciousness, collage, dérive for instanceIt is no wonder that comedian Rory Bremner, seen in 2017 on the controversial BBC Horizon’s ADHD and Me (2017) refers to ADHD is his ‘worst enemy and best friend’.

Inspired by Bremner’s statement, an event entitled Mind Wandering: Worst Enemy or Best Friend?, was run. It was a lively evening of chat, drinks, art and interdisciplinary productive antagonisms that took place on 24 October 2017 18:30-20:30 at the Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP), Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London. The intention of the evening was to open up and challenge our respective understanding of how the mind works, with particular attention paid to ADHD, and more generally, the boundaries between wellness and illness and how the arts can contribute to and complicate this discourse. Happily, there were clashes and sparks, zones of contact and zones of conflict – and our minds wandered, our journeys augmented. The gallery above (photographs by Enamul Hoque and Alessandra Cianetti) documents the evening, and invites further comments, reflections and participation.

The programme, also framed as an Open Studio, was a part of, and enacts artist Dr Kai Syng Tan’s #MagicCarpet, a 1.5 year art practice-related interdisciplinary collaboration by SGDP Artist in Residence Kai (Biennale of Sydney, Artangle Open 100, RUN! RUN! RUN! ) with the world-leading expert on adult ADHD Professor of Psychiatry Philip Asherson. At its heart is a 2.9mX1.45m tapestry artwork which people can ‘activate’ by sitting on it to make small talk and drawings about their mind wandering and, extending from that, related issues like neurodiversity, social versus medical models of health (and the 50 shades of grey in between), what it means to have a ‘disorder’, wellness versus illness and more generally, the body-mind-world dynamics for self and others.  The work aims to open up a critical and poetic space of ‘productive antagonisms’: people from all walks sit on the tapestry-cum-carpet-cum-mat and make drawings and small talk about their (different/conflicting perspectives) of mind wandering. Free Eventbrite tickets were sold out within 3 days of release, and again when the capacity was doubled. 50 colleagues and friends from diverse sectors ranging from biomedical science, art and design, disability arts and services as well as students and researchers from Higher Education institutions made drawings of their mind wandering, voted for or against the motion, and engaged in a discussion by Professor Asherson with guest speakers Natali Bozhilova (PhD researcher, SGDP, who talked about the neuroscience of mind wandering), Dr David Grant (Educational Psychologist, who talked about how the ADHD brain’s strength in visual thinking), Dr Laura Malacart (Visual Artist and Researcher, Visiting Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL, who talked about her Wellcome Trust-funded work on autism). The chair was #MagicCarpet artist/Principal Investigator Dr Kai Syng Tan, and the respondent was Professor Helen Chatterjee MBE (Founder and Co-Director National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing, University College London). A range of artistic outputs by Kai and attendees that became foundational elements of the tapestry art were also shared.

As the All Party Parliamentary Group in Arts and Health has eloquently and unequivocally argued, the arts can and should play an important role in health, including in its ability to ‘provide engagement and aesthetic detachment, enabling individuals to become more reflective’, which encompasses an ‘improved understanding of oneself, an ability to reflect on different aspects of one’s own life, an enhanced sense of empathy […] and a sense of the diversity of human experience’ (Crossick cited in p20).  Particularly In the discussion of ‘neurodiversity’, women remain under-represented and simply old-fashionedly, reassuringly hysterical. An event like this contributes to that of the efforts of other colleagues who have been enriching and challenging how we understand neurodiversity, as well as intersectional neurodiversity, that is, how neurodiversity comes into play with gender, class, race and sexual orientation. They include Jessica Thom, aka Touretteshero who is ‘changing the world one tic at a time’, activist Michelle Beckett, who has been lobbying MPs to form the first All Party Parliamentary Group to address issues for both adults and children with ADHD; Art with Heart, a Queer-led community interest company in Salford with a focus on, amongst others, ADHD. Just as the concept of biodiversity allows us to ‘recognise the importance of respecting our environment, with the rich diversity of life forms that inhabit it’, states Baron-Cohen, ‘neurodiversity is just the next step in this more respectful way of thinking about our planet and our communities’. Widening the visual lexicon and imagination of how we are wired differently, as well as provoking discussion, are part of the process of augmenting our mind about how human beings relate to one another.

Better timekeeping would have allowed more room for discourse and exchange, including involving the voices of the audience (the tricky balance of sustaining Kai’s own attention and interest vs curating a show that feels sufficiently developed and delicious with a crisp satisfying finish…) As a first sharing, however, it fulfilled its aim: people were intrigued, perplexed and curious  – and that was the magic that the project aims for. Feedback included:

Fantastic to be involved #MagicCarpet @wesatonamat discussing mind wandering & ADHD. Great wandering art&gibbons – Professor Helen Chatterjee MBE (guest respondent)


Kai, thank you it was a great evening, a massive well done to you! I chatted to some thought provoked people on the train platform, that is a sign that it went really well! — Dr Laura Malacart (Guest speaker)


Please keep creating awareness! — Anusha (Attendee)


I liked the individual presentation, debate in the end of the evening, inspiring creativity. — Anonymous (Attendee)


Artwork was very interesting. Speakers on ADHD + educational psychiatrist were very interesting. I liked the concept of ‘mind-wandering’ – first time I had heard about it. — Eliza (Attendee)


Thank you so much for yesterday. That was fun. — Iullia Rakitina (BSc psychology student and Volunteer)


Thanks so much for inviting me yesterday it was a real pleasure to be part of the event! Please do let me know if there is any way I could be involved and could help in the future! — Peter Reid (Volunteer)

–> Click here more images, comments and text about the evening.

–> Come ride with us on the #MagicCarpet. Join us in forthcoming events throughout the UK and beyond. Highlights include:

–> Come fly with us virtually, too, by sending your thoughts, comments, suggestions, audio-visual clips, images and texts to @wesatonamat or [email protected].

Let us open our minds. Let’s see how far we can go, together.

FUNDERS: #MagicCarpet, also known as We Sat On A Mat And Had A Chat And Made Maps, is a commission by Unlimited and funded by Arts Council England. Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that celebrates ambitious work by disabled artists, and is delivered by Shape Arts and Artsadmin. The project is part of King’s Artist In Residence programme supported by Cultural Programming and the Department of Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London.

TEAM: Artist, Principal Investigator: Dr Kai Syng Tan (King’s College London, University College London) / Mentor: Professor Philip Asherson (King’s College London) / Arts Production Manager: Alessandra Cianetti / Photographer: Enamul Hoque / Sound and Music Director: Philip Tan (Philbeat) / Film Director: Michael Larsson (Ohsoweird) / Social Media and Publicity Curator (R&D phase): David Kelly-Mancaux (Erkembode)

PARTNERS: Submit To Love Studios (Headway East London), UK Adult ADHD Network (UKAAN)