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An excerpt from Gary Lawrence’s forthcoming book “The Magnificent Gift of Agency; To Act and Not Be Acted Upon.”
A 14-year-old farm boy had just plowed a potato field in Idaho and as he looked over his work at the end of the day, two seemingly unrelated visuals came together in his mind and changed history.
Thinking of the straight plowed lines, he wondered if an image could be scanned electronically as a series of lines using the same back-and-forth motions he had just used to plow the field, line by line. Thus was born the principle of the image dissector and he produced a working version at age 21 followed by the cathode ray tube that displayed the image.
The teenager who saw this connection in 1921? Philo Farnsworth, inventor of television.
The Agency Chain
Little Houses and Expanding Real Estate
Your brain contains 100,000,000,000 little houses and sticking out from each are one, two, three or more wires. The houses are neurons and the wires are dendrites – ‘mini-computers’ – each the thickness of one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair.
From the stimuli of daily life, the brain picks up an item, such as Farnsworth’s picture of a potato field, and using trillions of miles of dendrites sends signals to neurons asking, “Does this guy fit with you?” And if there’s a possible connection, “Care to get together for a synapse?” – synapses being the gaps between dendrites across which electrical signals flow. The more frequently neurons send signals to other neurons, the more they are “glued” together to form clusters we call … thoughts.
The brain constantly rewires itself. One thought triggers another – good for good, evil for evil – and less-used clusters get pruned, all based on what we choose to think about.
The 100 billion neuron houses in your brain are not spread out on flat real estate; they work just as well on the walls of a cliff. Because the brain is plastic and malleable, territory for new neurons and dendrites is created by digging canyons – fissures. The more fissures, the more neurons, the more the connections, the more the ideas.
This was the critical feature of the brain of a man from Ulm, Germany, who as a little boy didn’t speak until he was four years old and his teachers thought was retarded, but became known as the smartest man in the world. Because of brain canyons and curiosity.
Albert Einstein – A Groovy Dude
We don’t know his early mental processes, but whatever they were, they led to his brain becoming one of the most complex in history. He died in 1955 but pictures of his autopsied brain were not released until 2012. They revealed more grooves, more convolutions, more ridges and valleys, more fissures – more of that all-important surface-area gray matter – than almost any other brain ever examined.
The most striking discovery, as one report has it, was “the complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of Einstein’s cerebral cortex … important for the kind of abstract thinking that Einstein would have needed for his famous thought experiments on the nature of space and time…. The unusually complex pattern of convolutions there probably gave the region an unusually large surface area, which may have contributed to his remarkable abilities.”
Those grooves were formed because Einstein pushed his brain, which is what our Father wants us to do.
We get a hint of the power of Einstein’s mental processes through the imagination scenarios he pondered – trains, the speed of light, falling painters, elevators, lightning, spaceships, flipping a two-sided coin, etc. It began at age 16 when he wondered what it would be like to ride a beam of light across the universe. Then followed his famous thought experiments such as …
- What happens if a light is shined from a train moving at the speed of light? Or, if two passengers on a train moving at the speed of light throw a ball back and forth, does the ball move faster than the speed of light when thrown in the direction the train is moving?
In this example, if the speed of light is a constant (which it is), then either time or distance has to give way as the train speed increases. And they do. From such interplay between the neuron clusters in his brain, Einstein explained to the world that … time slows as motion increases, time and space are not absolute, gravity and acceleration are the same thing, observers in motion experience time differently, and that matter, motion and gravity bend the fabric of the time-space continuum.
“Command of metaphor,” said Aristotle, “is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” And as one wag put it, “Einstein never metaphor he didn’t like.”
His modest reaction? “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Curiosity on steroids, we might argue, for he trained his brain to see complexities and similarities, and then connect them to real-world objects for the sake of us not so blessed.
How does it begin? With children at play:
A cardboard box becomes a car or a pirate ship. A stick becomes a horse or a flying broom. Put Cheerios in a line and you have a train. Donuts become wheels; oranges become bowling balls; chairs and blankets become a castle or a fort; with capes you can fly. (I have a relative who tried that off a garage roof – imagination takes you only so far.)
What a great mental condition to be prepared for anything to happen. Playfulness is a willingness to suspend reality, to go where curiosity leads. Such a mind keeps pinging the brain for new comparisons and enjoys building on the connections and combinations that result.
Thus, everything is feasible to children. Isn’t this what we would want our brain to do – check out every possibility, even though many may appear useless, even silly, at first?
Eric Hoffer noted: “The creative mind is the playful mind. When the Greeks said, ‘Whom the gods love die young,’ they probably meant that those favored by the gods stay young till the day they die; young and playful.”
As Einstein himself put it: “To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play. Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
The mind is a whirlwind of activity that must be channeled to be productive. Organizing and focusing it doesn’t happen automatically. It takes effort. The well-known story of Oliver Cowdery is illustrative.
Oliver, serving as the Prophet Joseph’s scribe, desired to have the same gift of translation and try his hand at it. The Lord humored him and as he sat there like a receptive sponge, nothing happened. Then the explanation:
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you,, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”
Harness neurons and dendrites through study and effort, then comes the reward.
Sometimes the reward trickles in a bit at a time. Other times it’s sudden. On September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard, a scientist from Hungary, stepped off a curb in London to cross a street. By the time he got to the other side, he had glimpsed the future of nuclear energy six years before nuclear fission was discovered. It was a case of two (or more) of his neuron clusters joining up in his brain to suggest that if an element could be found that when one neutron (note the “t”) is bombarded it would release two neutrons, it could lead to a chain reaction and the release of huge amounts of energy – call it a neuronal explosion as well.
The Mind Never Sleeps
One under-appreciated power of the mind is that it is always working, as verified by many whose minds found solutions to problems while they slept.
Seeking to find a logical pattern for chemical elements, Dmitri Mendeleev wrote the name of each known element on cards together with its characteristics. Then he moved the cards around on a table seeking a consistent arrangement, one that could include elements yet to be discovered. Tired after many hours of trying, he fell asleep at his desk. He wrote, “In a dream I saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”
Thus we have the Periodic Table of Elements.
God created our minds to mimic His. It is the instrument that first uses agency to envision and initiate action – the famous command to act. Great mental powers await us in eternity as we learn to think deeply.
The glory of God, and therefore His power, is indeed intelligence.
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Gary Lawrence is a public opinion pollster and author in Orange County, California.