Our minds are amazing!
by Ronni Lamont (revised, originally published in 2008)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To recognize the different ways in which the mind can work.
Preparation and materials
- Familiarize yourself with the stories in the 'Assembly' and be ready to repeat them to the students.
- Today I am going to tell you two stories.
- The first is a very old story about a great Greek mathematician and philosopher.
Archimedes was trying to work out why things are lighter when they are placed in water and how this difference in weight could be calculated. A steel-hulled boat, for example, is so heavy that it should sink, but, if it is correctly made, it will float. We are also familiar with people seeming to weigh less when they are in water as we can pick them up easily, but might find this hard or even impossible on dry land!
The story goes that Archimedes was lying back in his bath one day, just thinking about this difference, when, suddenly, the answer came to him!
The water level had risen as he had climbed in to the bath and he deduced from this that the apparent loss in weight of an object in water would be equal to the weight of the displaced water. He was so excited that he jumped out of the bath shouting ‘Eureka!’, which is Greek for, ‘I’ve found it!’ He then ran round the streets of the town of Syracuse without so much as a towel to hide his modesty!
As a result of this, we now have the expression ‘eureka moment’, which we use to describe times when, suddenly, something makes sense and the answer becomes clear or we have some insight we didn't have before.
- There is another story that I’m going to tell you and, while the story about Archimedes was possibly fabricated, this one is historically true - it took place in the 1840s.
Elias Howe was an engineer who was trying to invent the world’s first sewing machine. Despite working very hard, he could not find the solutions to some of the design problems he encountered. The material either snagged or the needles snapped. Elias began to worry that someone else would find the solutions to these problems before him and beat him to becoming the official inventor of the first ever sewing machine.
One night, after a hard days’ work, Elias climbed into bed, his mind still working on the problem and, as he fell asleep, he began to dream.
In his dream, Elias was running for his life. A gang of fierce spear-wielding men were chasing him and he could not escape. He continued to run, even though he knew it was hopeless, as the more he ran, the less he was able to get away.
Suddenly, the fierce men caught him and, moving as one, they leant over him and began jabbing him with their pointed spears. The spears rained down again and again . . . up and down . . . up and down . . . there was no escape.
Suddenly, Elias woke up, his heart pounding. ‘It was a dream, Elias,’ he murmured to himself. ‘It was only a dream!’
As Elias lay down again, he thought about the dream. He recognized that the spears were like the prototype of his sewing machine, going up and down . . . and up and down. He had noticed something about the spears in the dream, though – they had a hole in the sharp end! This was the breakthrough he had been looking for.
All previous attempts at making a sewing machine had been based on using a similar needle to that used for sewing by hand, with the hole at the opposite end to the point. Elias Howe suddenly realized that he could devise a mechanism that would allow the thread to be poked through the material by a needle with a hole in the sharp end, a thread from underneath anchoring it in place to form a stitch. The idea for the sewing machine had been born!
- Sometimes we struggle with problems and seem to make little headway. Sometimes our minds are so full of information or reasoning that we need to take time out from looking for a solution or we'll keep getting nowhere.
For Archimedes, the solution to his problem came to him while he was relaxing in the bath. For Elias, the answer to his problem came when he relaxed and fell asleep. They were not concentrating hard and that made room for fresh thoughts.
The same is true for us. Sometimes when we are struggling with a problem, it is good to step away from it for a while and focus on other things. We could take a break, play a sport, go for a walk, talk to people, write down the problem, draw a picture or otherwise simply take some time out doing something that we enjoy.
The trick is to give the brain a pause so that it can reorganize itself and see things in a fresh way.
Time for reflection
What sort of problems are you finding hard at the moment?
What can you do to help yourself in this situation? Maybe you need to speak to someone and ask for help. Maybe you need to write down the problem and see if it looks better on paper. Maybe you simply need to give yourself space to relax.
when my mind seems to jam,
when I can’t think straight any more,
when I get cross because I just can’t do something,
help me to walk away, think anew and then return to the problem later - to find the solution.