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Step Three: The Creative Breakthrough—Tension and Insight

In the creative lives of almost all Masters, we hear of the following pattern: They begin a project with an initial intuition and an excitement about its potential success. Their project is deeply connected to something personal and primal, and seems very much alive to them.

As their initial nervous excitement inspires them in certain directions, they begin to give their concept shape, narrowing down its possibilities, and channeling their energies into ideas that grow more and more distinct. They enter a phase of heightened focus. But Masters inevitably possess another quality that complicates the work process: They are not easily satisfied by what they are doing. While able to feel excitement, they also feel doubt about the worthiness of their work. They have high internal standards. As they progress, they begin to detect flaws and difficulties in their original idea that they had not foreseen.

As the process begins to become more conscious and less intuitive, that idea once so alive in them starts to seem somewhat dead or stale. This is a difficult feeling to endure and so they work even harder, trying to force a solution. The harder they try, the more inner tension and frustration they create. The sense of staleness grows. In the beginning, their mind teemed with rich associations; now it seems condemned to a narrow track of thought that does not spark the same connections. At certain points in this process, lesser types would simply give up or settle for what they have—a mediocre and half-realized project. But Masters are stronger. They have been through this before, and on an unconscious level they understand that they must plow forward, and that the frustration, or the feeling of being blocked, has a purpose.

At a particular high point of tension, they let go for a moment. This could be as simple as stopping work and going to sleep; or it could mean deciding to take a break, or to temporarily work on something else. What almost inevitably happens in such moments is that the solution, the perfect idea for completing the work comes to them.

After ten long years of incessant thinking on the problem of general relativity, Albert Einstein decided one evening to simply give up. He had had enough. It was beyond him. He went to bed early, and when he awoke the solution suddenly came to him. The composer Richard Wagner had worked so hard on his opera Das Rheingold that he became completely blocked. Beyond frustration, he took a long walk in the woods, lay down, and fell asleep. In a sort of half dream, he felt himself sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sounds formed into musical chords. He awoke, terrified by a feeling of drowning. He hurried home and noted down the chords of his dream, which seemed to perfectly conjure up the sound of rushing water. These chords became the prelude of the opera, a leitmotif that runs throughout it, and one of the most astonishing pieces he had ever written.

These stories are so common as to indicate something essential about the brain and how it reaches certain peaks of creativity. We can explain this pattern in the following way: If we remained as excited as we were in the beginning of our project, maintaining that intuitive feel that sparked it all, we would never be able to take the necessary distance to look at our work objectively and improve upon it. Losing that initial verve causes us to work and rework the idea. It forces us to not settle too early on an easy solution. The mounting frustration and tightness that comes from single-minded devotion to one problem or idea will naturally lead to a breaking point. We realize we are getting nowhere. Such moments are signals from the brain to let go, for however long a period necessary, and most creative people consciously or unconsciously accept this.

When we let go, we are not aware that below the surface of consciousness the ideas and the associations we had built up continue to bubble and incubate. With the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now has been greatly enhanced by all of our hard work. The brain can now find the proper synthesis to the work, the one that was eluding us because we had become too tight in our approach. Perhaps the idea for the watery sounds in Das Rheingold had stirred before in different forms in Wagner’s brain as he strained to find the right opening. Only by giving up the chase and falling asleep in the woods was he able to access his unconscious mind, and allow an idea that had been brewing there to surface by way of a dream.

The key is to be aware of this process and to encourage yourself to go as far as you can with your doubts, your reworkings, and your strained efforts, knowing the value and purpose of the frustration and creative blocks you are facing. Think of yourself as your own Zen Master. Such Masters would often beat their pupils and deliberately lead them to points of maximum doubt and inner tension, knowing such moments often precede enlightenment.

Among the thousands of stories of great insights and discoveries, perhaps the strangest one of all is that of Evariste Galois, a promising student of mathematics in France who in his teens revealed exceptional brilliance in algebra. In 1831, at the age of twenty, he became embroiled in a quarrel over a woman, which resulted in his being challenged to a duel. The night before the duel, certain he was going to die, Galois sat down and tried to summarize all of the ideas on algebraic equations that had been troubling him for several years. Suddenly, the ideas flowed, and even new ones came to him. He wrote all night at a feverish pitch. The next day, as he had foreseen, he died in the duel, but in the ensuing years his notes were read and published, leading to a complete revolution in higher algebra. Some of his scribbled notes indicated directions in mathematics that were so far ahead of his time, it is hard to fathom where they came from.

This is a somewhat extreme example, but the story reveals something elemental about the need for tension. The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our attention and thoughts become diffused. Our lack of intensity makes it hard for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur. For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured. Faced with the slenderest amount of time to reach the end, the mind rises to the level you require. Ideas crowd upon one another. You don’t have the luxury of feeling frustrated. Every day represents an intense challenge, and every morning you wake up with original ideas and associations to push you along.

If you don’t have such deadlines, manufacture them for yourself. The inventor Thomas Edison understood how much better he worked under pressure. He would deliberately talk to the press about an idea before it was ready. This would create some publicity and excitement in the public as to the possibilities of the proposed invention. If he dropped the ball or let too much time pass, his reputation would suffer, and so his mind would spark into high gear and he would make it happen. In such cases your mind is like the army that is now backed up against the sea or a mountain and cannot retreat. Sensing the proximity of death, it will fight harder than ever.

Emotional Pitfalls

When we arrive at the Creative-Active phase in our career, we are confronted by new challenges that are not simply mental or intellectual. The work is more demanding; we are on our own and the stakes are higher. Our work is now more public and highly scrutinized. We might have the most brilliant ideas and a mind capable of handling the greatest intellectual challenges, but if we are not careful, we will tumble into emotional pitfalls. We will grow insecure, overly anxious about people’s opinions, or excessively self-confident. Or we will become bored and lose a taste for the hard work that is always necessary. Once we fall into these traps it is hard to extricate ourselves; we lose the necessary perspective to see where we have gone wrong. Better to be aware of these pitfalls in advance and never step into them. The following are the six most common pitfalls that threaten us along the way.

Complacency: In childhood, the world seemed like an enchanted place. Everything that we encountered had an intensity to it, and sparked feelings of wonder. Now, from our mature viewpoint, we see this wonderment as naïve, a quaint quality we have outgrown with our sophistication and vast experience of the real world. Such words as “enchantment” or “wonder” cause us to snicker. But imagine for an instant that the opposite is the case. The fact that life began on its own so many billions of years ago, that a conscious species such as ours ever came about and evolved into our present form, that we have visited the moon and come to understand vital laws of physics, and so on—all of this should continually fill us with awe. Our skeptical, cynical attitudes can actually cut us off from so many interesting questions, and from reality itself.

After we pass through a rigorous apprenticeship and begin to flex our creative muscles, we cannot help but feel satisfaction in what we have learned and how far we have progressed. We naturally begin to take for granted certain ideas we have learned and developed. Slowly, we stop asking the same kinds of questions that plagued us earlier on. We already know the answers. We feel ever so superior. Unknown to ourselves, the mind slowly narrows and tightens as complacency creeps into the soul, and although we may have achieved public acclaim for our past work, we stifle our own creativity and never get it back. Fight this downhill tendency as much as you can by upholding the value of active wonder. Constantly remind yourself of how little you truly know, and of how mysterious the world remains.

Conservatism: If you gain any kind of attention or success for your work in this phase, you face the great danger of creeping conservatism. This danger comes in several forms. You begin to fall in love with the ideas and strategies that worked for you in the past. Why risk changing your style in midstream, or adapting a new approach to your work? Better to stick to the tried and true. You also will have a reputation to protect—better to not say or do anything that might rock the boat. You become subtly addicted to the material comforts you have acquired and before you know it, you uphold ideas that you think you believe in, but that really are tied to your need to please the audience or your sponsors, or whomever.

Creativity is by its nature an act of boldness and rebellion. You are not accepting the status quo or conventional wisdom. You are playing with the very rules you have learned, experimenting and testing the boundaries. The world is dying for bolder ideas, for people who are not afraid to speculate and investigate. Creeping conservatism will narrow your searches, tether you to comfortable ideas, and create a downward spiral—as the creative spark leaves you, you will find yourself clutching even more forcefully to dead ideas, past successes, and the need to maintain your status. Make creativity rather than comfort your goal and you will ensure far more success for the future.

Dependency: In the Apprenticeship Phase you relied upon mentors and those above you to supply you with the necessary standards of judgment for your field. But if you are not careful, you will carry this need for approval over into the next phase. Instead of relying on the Master for evaluation of your work, you—ever insecure about your work and how it will be judged—come to rely on the opinions of the public. It is not that you must ignore these judgments, but that you must first work hard to develop internal standards and a high degree of independence. You have the capacity to see your own work with some distance; when the public reacts, you can distinguish between what is worth paying attention to and what you should ignore. What you want in the end is to internalize the voice of your Master so that you become both teacher and pupil. If you fail to do so you will have no internal gauge as to the value of your work, and you will be blown here and there by the opinions of others, never to find yourself.

Impatience: This is perhaps the single greatest pitfall of them all. This quality continually haunts you, no matter how disciplined you might think you are. You will convince yourself that your work is essentially over and well done, when really it is your impatience speaking and coloring your judgment. You tend to lose the energy you had when you were younger and hungrier. Unconsciously, you will veer toward repetition—reusing the same ideas and processes as a kind of shortcut. Unfortunately, the creative process requires continual intensity and vigor. Each exercise or problem or project is different. Hurrying to the end or warming up old ideas will ensure a mediocre result.

Leonardo da Vinci understood the dangers of such impatience. He adopted as his motto the expression ostinato rigore, which translates as “stubborn rigor” or “tenacious application.” For every project he involved himself in—and by the end of his life they numbered in the thousands—he repeated this to himself, so he would attack each one with the same vigor and tenacity. The best way to neutralize our natural impatience is to cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain—like an athlete, you come to enjoy rigorous practice, pushing past your limits, and resisting the easy way out.

Grandiosity: Sometimes greater danger comes from success and praise than from criticism. If we learn to handle criticism well, it can strengthen us and help us become aware of flaws in our work. Praise generally does harm. Ever so slowly, the emphasis shifts from the joy of the creative process to the love of attention and to our ever-inflating ego. Without realizing it, we alter and shape our work to attract the praise that we crave. We fail to understand the element of luck that always goes into success—we often depend on being in the right place at the right time. Instead, we come to think that our brilliance has naturally drawn our success and attention, as if it were indeed fated. Once the ego inflates it will only come back to earth through some jarring failure, which will equally scar us. To avoid this fate, you must have some perspective. There are always greater geniuses out there than yourself. Luck certainly played a role, as did the help of your mentor and all those in the past who paved the way. What must ultimately motivate you is the work itself and the process. Public attention is actually a nuisance and a distraction. Such an attitude is the only defense against falling into the traps set by our ego.

Inflexibility: Being creative involves certain paradoxes. You must know your field inside and out, and yet be able to question its most entrenched assumptions. You must be somewhat naïve to entertain certain questions, and optimistic that you will solve the problem at hand; at the same time, you must regularly doubt that you have achieved your goal and subject your work to intensive self-criticism. All of this requires a great deal of flexibility, which means you must not get too hung up on any single frame of mind. You must bend to the moment and adopt the attitude appropriate to the moment.

Flexibility is not an easy or natural quality to develop. Once you spend a period of time being excited and hopeful about an idea, you will find it hard to shift to a more critical position. Once you look at your work with intensity and doubt, you will lose your optimism and your love of what you do. Avoiding these problems takes practice and often some experience—when you have pushed past the doubt before, you will find it easier the next time. In any event, you must avoid emotional extremes and find a way to feel optimism and doubt at the same time—a difficult sensation to describe in words, but something all Masters have experienced.

We are all in search of feeling more connected to reality—to other people, the times we live in, the natural world, our character, and our own uniqueness. Our culture increasingly tends to separate us from these realities in various ways. We indulge in drugs or alcohol, or engage in dangerous sports or risky behavior, just to wake ourselves up from the sleep of our daily existence and feel a heightened sense of connection to reality. In the end, however, the most satisfying and powerful way to feel this connection is through creative activity. Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, Masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.

Although it involves much pain, the pleasure that comes from the overall process of creativity is of an intensity that makes us want to repeat it. That is why creative people return again and again to such endeavors, despite all of the anxiety and doubt they stir up. It is nature’s way of rewarding us for the effort; if we had no such rewards, people would not engage in such activity, and mankind would suffer irreparably from this loss. This pleasure will be your reward as well, to whatever degree you pursue the process.

STRATEGIES FOR THE CREATIVE-ACTIVE PHASE

Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren’t you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind—to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity .

—ALBERT EINSTEIN

As future Masters emerge from their apprenticeships, they all face the same dilemma: no one has ever really instructed them about the creative process, and there are no real books or teachers to turn to. Struggling on their own to become more active and imaginative with the knowledge they have gained, they evolve their own process—one that suits their temperament and the field they are working in. And in these creative evolutions we can detect some basic patterns and lessons for us all. The following stories of nine Masters reveal nine different strategic approaches to the same goal. The methods they employ may be applied to any field because they are connected to the creative powers of the brain that we all possess. Try to absorb each one of them, enriching your own knowledge of the process of mastery and widening your creative arsenal.

  1. The Authentic Voice

As a boy growing up in North Carolina, John Coltrane (1926–67) took up music as a kind of hobby. He was an anxious young man who needed an outlet for all of his pent-up energy. He started with the alto horn, moved to the clarinet, and finally settled on the alto saxophone. He played for his school band, and to those who heard him play back then he was a completely insignificant member of the group.

Then in 1943 his family moved to Philadelphia. One evening shortly after the move Coltrane happened to catch a performance of the great bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, and he was instantly transfixed. (See here.) He had never heard such playing, had never imagined such possibilities in music. Parker had a way of lilting and singing through his saxophone as if the instrument had melded with his own voice, and in hearing him play it seemed possible to feel what he was feeling. From that moment on, John Coltrane was a man possessed. Following in Parker’s footsteps, in his own way, would now be his Life’s Task.

Coltrane was not sure how he could reach such heights, but he knew that Parker was an intense student of all types of music and practiced the instrument harder than anyone. This fit in nicely with Coltrane’s own inclinations—always being somewhat of a loner, he loved nothing more than to study and expand his knowledge. He started taking theory lessons at a local music school. And he began to practice night and day, with such assiduity that his reeds would become red from blood. In the time in between practicing, he went to the public library and listened to classical music, hungry to absorb every conceivable harmonic possibility. He practiced scales like a fiend, driving his family insane. He took scale-book exercises designed for the piano and used them for the saxophone, going through all of the keys in Western music. He began to get gigs in bands in Philadelphia, getting his first real break in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. Gillespie made him change to the tenor sax to get more of the Charlie Parker sound, and within a few months Coltrane had mastered the new instrument—through endless hours of practice.

Over the next five years Coltrane would bounce around from one band to another, each with its different style and repertoire of songs. This wandering existence suited him well—he felt as if he needed to internalize every conceivable style of music. But this also caused him some problems. When it came time for him to perform a solo, he was quite awkward and halting. He had an unusual sense of rhythm, a hopping and skipping style that was peculiar to him and not quite right for the bands he was playing for. Feeling self-conscious, when it came time for a solo he would resort to imitating someone else’s way of playing. Every few months he would suddenly experiment with a new sound that he had heard. To some, it seemed like young Coltrane had gotten lost in all of his studying and roaming about.

In 1955 Miles Davis—leader of the most famous jazz quartet at the time—decided to take a chance and invite Coltrane into his group. Like everyone else, he knew that the young man was the most technically brilliant player around, the result of so many hours of practice. But he also detected in his work something strange, a new kind of voice straining to come out. He encouraged Coltrane to go his own way and never look back. In the months to come, Davis would have moments of regret—he had let loose something that was hard to integrate into his group. Coltrane had a way of starting chords in the strangest places. He would alternate fast passages with long tones, giving the impression that several voices were coming through the saxophone at once. No one had ever heard such a sound. His tone was equally peculiar; he had his own way of tightly clenching the mouthpiece, making it seem as if it were his own gravelly voice that was emerging from the instrument. His playing had an undercurrent of anxiety and aggression, which gave his music a sense of urgency.

Although many were put off by this strange new sound, some critics began to recognize something exciting in it. One writer described what came out of Coltrane’s saxophone as “sheets of sound,” as if he were playing groups of notes at once and sweeping the listener away with his music. Although he was now gaining recognition and attention, Coltrane continued to feel restless and uncertain. Through all of his years of practicing and playing he had been searching for something he could hardly put into words. He wanted to personalize his sound to the extreme, to make it the perfect embodiment of how he was feeling—often emotions of a spiritual and transcendental nature, and thus hard to verbalize. At moments his playing would come alive, but at other times the sensation of his own voice would elude him. Perhaps all of his knowledge was in fact cramping and inhibiting him. In 1959 he left Miles Davis to form his own quartet. From now on, he would experiment and try almost anything until he found the sound that he had been looking for.

His song “Giant Steps,” on his first major album of the same name, was an exercise in unconventional music. Using peculiar chord progressions that moved in thirds, with constant key and chord changes, the music was impelled frantically forward. (Its third-related chord progressions became known as Coltrane changes, and are still used by musicians as a template for jazz improvisation.) The album was a huge success; several pieces from it went on to become jazz standards, but the experiment left Coltrane cold. He now wanted to return to melody, to something freer and more expressive, and he found himself going back to the music of his early childhood—Negro spirituals. In 1960 he created his first huge popular hit, an extended version of the song “My Favorite Things,” from the smash Broadway musical The Sound of Music. He played it on the soprano saxophone in a style that seemed almost East Indian, blending in as well a touch of Negro spirituals, all with his strange propensity for chord changes and rapid scales. It was a weird blend of experimental and popular music, unlike anything anyone else had done.

Coltrane was now like an alchemist, involved in an almost impossible quest to discover the essence of music itself, to make it express more deeply and directly the emotions he was feeling, to connect it to the unconscious. And slowly, it seemed he was getting closer to his goal. His ballad “Alabama,” written in response to the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, seemed to capture something essential about the moment and the mood of the time. It seemed to be the incarnation of sadness and despair. A year later, his album A Love Supreme appeared. It was recorded in one day, and making the music was like a religious experience for him. It had everything he was aiming for—extended movements that went as long as it felt natural to do so (something novel in jazz), and a trance-like effect on listeners, while still containing the hard-driving sound and technical brilliance he was known for. It was an album that expressed that spiritual element he could not put into words. It became a sensation, drawing a whole new audience to his music.

People who saw his live performances in this period proclaimed the uniqueness of the experience. As the saxophonist Joe McPhee described it, “I thought I was going to die from the emotion…I thought I was just going to explode right in the place. The energy level kept building up, and I thought, God almighty, I can’t take it.” Audiences would go wild, some people screaming at the intensity of the sound. It seemed as if the music from Coltrane’s saxophone was a direct translation of some deep mood or feeling of his, and that he could move the audience in whatever direction he wanted with it. No other jazz artist had such an effect on audiences.

As part of the Coltrane phenomenon, every change he introduced into jazz was suddenly adopted as the latest trend—extended songs, larger groups, tambourines and bells, Eastern sounds, and so on. The man who had spent ten long years absorbing the styles of all forms of music and jazz now had become the trendsetter for others. Coltrane’s meteoric career, however, was cut short in 1967, when he died at the age of forty of liver cancer.

In Coltrane’s era jazz had become a celebration of individuality. Players like Charlie Parker made the jazz solo the centerpiece of any work. In the solo, the player would pour out his own unique voice. But what is this voice that comes through so clearly in the work of the greats? It is not something we can exactly put into words. Musicians are expressing something deep about their nature, their particular psychological makeup, even their unconscious. It comes out in their style, their unique rhythms and phrasings. But this voice does not emerge from just being oneself and letting loose. A person who would take up an instrument and try to express this quality right away would only produce noise. Jazz or any other musical form is a language, with conventions and vocabulary. And so the extreme paradox is that those who impress the most with their individuality—John Coltrane at the top—are the ones who first completely submerge their character in a long apprenticeship. In Coltrane’s case, this process can be broken up neatly—just over ten years of an intense apprenticeship, followed by ten years of perhaps the most amazing creative explosion in modern music, up until his death.

By spending so long learning structure, developing technique, and absorbing every possible style and way of playing, Coltrane built up a vast vocabulary. Once all of this became hardwired into his nervous system, his mind could focus on higher things. At an increasingly rapid pace, he could bend all of the techniques he had learned into something more personal. In being so open to exploring and trying things out, he could discover in a serendipitous fashion those musical ideas that suited him. With all that he had learned and mastered, he could combine ideas and styles in unique ways. By being patient and following the process, individual expression flowed out of him naturally. He personalized every genre he worked in, from blues to Broadway show tunes. His authentic voice—with its anxious, urgent tone—was a reflection of his uniqueness at birth, and came to him in a lengthy, organic process. By expressing his deepest self and his most primal emotions, he created a visceral effect on listeners.

Understand: the greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash. What happens in such a case is that you do not master the basics; you have no real vocabulary at your disposal. What you mistake for being creative and distinctive is more likely an imitation of other people’s style, or personal rantings that do not really express anything. Audiences, however, are hard to fool. They feel the lack of rigor, the imitative quality, the urge to get attention, and they turn their backs, or give the mildest praise that quickly passes. The best route is to follow Coltrane and to love learning for its own sake. Anyone who would spend ten years absorbing the techniques and conventions of their field, trying them out, mastering them, exploring and personalizing them, would inevitably find their authentic voice and give birth to something unique and expressive.

  1. The Fact of Great Yield

For as long as he can remember, V. S. Ramachandran (b. 1951) has been fascinated by any kind of strange phenomenon in nature. As narrated in chapter 1 (see here), at a very young age he began collecting seashells from beaches near his home in Madras. In researching the subject, his attention was drawn to the most peculiar varieties of seashells, such as the carnivorous murex. Soon he added these unusual specimens to his collection. As he got older, he transferred this interest to abnormal phenomena in chemistry, astronomy, and human anatomy. Perhaps he intuited that these anomalies fulfilled some kind of purpose in nature, that what does not fit the pattern has something interesting to tell us. Perhaps he felt that he himself—with his passion for science when other boys were attracted to sports or games—was a bit of an anomaly as well. In any event, as he matured his attraction to the bizarre and abnormal only grew.

In the 1980s, as a professor of visual psychology at the University of California at San Diego, he came upon a phenomenon that appealed to his interest in anomalies in the deepest way—the so-called phantom limb syndrome. In this case, people who have had a limb amputated continue to experience sensation and pain where the limb used to be. In his research as a visual psychologist, Ramachandran had specialized in optical illusions—instances in which the brain would incorrectly fill in information from what the eyes had processed. Phantom limbs represented an optical illusion on a much larger scale, with the brain supplying sensation where there could be none. Why would the brain send such signals? What does such a phenomenon tell us about the brain in general? And why were there so few people interested in this truly bizarre condition? He became obsessed with these questions, and read everything he could about the subject.

One day in 1991, he read about an experiment conducted by Dr. Timothy Pons of the National Institute of Health that astounded him with its possible ramifications. Pons’s experiment was based on research from the 1950s in which the Canadian neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfeld, had been able to map the areas of the human brain that regulate sensation in various body parts. This map ended up being applicable to primates as well.

In Pons’s experiment, he worked with monkeys whose nerve fibers from the brain to one arm had been severed. In testing out the map of their brains, Pons discovered that when he touched the hand of the dead arm, there was no activity in the corresponding part of the brain, as expected. But when he touched their faces, suddenly the cells in the brain that corresponded to the dead hand began to fire rapidly, in addition to those of the face. The nerve cells in the brain that govern sensation in the hand had somehow migrated to the area of the face. It was impossible to know for sure, but it seemed that these monkeys were experiencing sensation in the dead hand when their faces were touched.

Inspired by this discovery, Ramachandran decided to conduct an experiment that was astonishing for its simplicity. He brought into his office a young man who, because of a recent car accident, had had his left arm amputated from just above the elbow, and was now experiencing considerable sensation in his phantom limb. Using a cotton swab, Ramachandran proceeded to touch the man’s legs and stomach. He reported completely normal sensations. But when Ramachandran swabbed a particular part of his cheek, the man experienced a sensation both in the cheek and in the thumb of his phantom hand. Moving around the face with the Q-tip, Ramachandran found other areas corresponding to other parts of the missing hand. The results were remarkably similar to those of Pons’s experiment.

The implications of this one simple test were profound. It had been largely assumed in neuroscience that the connections in the brain are hardwired at birth or in the earliest years, and are essentially permanent. The results of this experiment contradicted this assumption. In this case, after a traumatic accident, it appeared that the brain had altered itself in a dramatic fashion, creating whole new networks of connections in a relatively short amount of time. This meant that the human brain is potentially far more plastic than had been imagined. In this case the brain had altered itself in an odd and seemingly inexplicable way. But what if this power to alter itself could be harnessed for positive, therapeutic uses?

Based on this experiment, Ramachandran decided to shift fields, moving into the neuroscience department at UCSD and devoting his time and research to anomalous neurological disorders. He decided to take his phantom limb experiment a step further. Many patients with a severed limb experience an odd kind of paralysis that is highly painful. They feel the phantom limb, they want to move it but cannot, and they feel a cramping and sometimes an excruciating ache. Ramachandran speculated that before the limb had been amputated the brain had learned to experience the arm or leg as paralyzed, and once it had been amputated it continued to feel it that way. Would it be possible, considering the plasticity of the brain, to unlearn this paralysis? And so he came up with yet another incredibly simple experiment to test out his idea.

Using a mirror that he had in his office, he proceeded to construct his own apparatus. He took a cardboard box with the lid removed, and made two armholes in the front of the box. He then positioned the upright mirror inside of it. Patients were instructed to place their good arm through one hole and their severed arm right up to the other hole. They were to maneuver the mirror until the image of their good arm was seen in the position where their other arm should be. In moving their good arm and seeing it move in the position of the severed one, almost instantly, these patients experienced an alleviation of the feeling of paralysis. Most of the patients who took the box home with them and practiced with it were able to unlearn the paralysis, much to their relief.

Once again, the meaning of this discovery was profound. Not only was the brain more plastic, but the senses were also much more interconnected than previously imagined. The brain did not consist of modules for each sense; instead they overlapped. In this case, pure visual stimuli had altered the sense of touch and sensation. But beyond that, this experiment also called into question the whole notion of pain. Pain, it seemed, was a kind of opinion the body rendered on what it was experiencing, on its own health. This opinion could be tricked or manipulated, as the mirror experiment had shown.

In further experiments, Ramachandran arranged it so that patients would see a student’s arm instead of their own, superimposed over the phantom limb. They would not be aware that this had been done, and when the student moved the arm, they experienced the same relief from paralysis. It was merely the sight of the movement that created the effect. This made the sensation of pain seem increasingly more subjective and subject to alteration.

Over the ensuing years, Ramachandran would perfect this creative style of investigation into an art, transforming himself into one of the leading neuroscientists in the world. He developed certain guidelines for his strategy. He would look for any evidence of anomalies in neuroscience or in related fields, ones that brought up questions that had the potential to challenge conventional wisdom. His criteria were that he had to be able to show it was a real phenomenon (something like telepathy would not fall into this category), that it could be explained in terms of current science, and that it had important implications stretching beyond the confines of his own field. If others were ignoring it because it seemed too weird, so much the better—he would have the research field all to himself.

Furthermore, he looked for ideas that he could verify through simple experiments—no heavy or expensive equipment. He had noticed that those who got large grants for their research, which would include all of the technological gadgetry that went with it, would become embroiled in political games in order to justify the money being spent on them. They would rely on technology instead of on their own thinking. And they would become conservative, not wanting to rock the boat with their conclusions. He preferred to do his work with cotton swabs and mirrors, and by engaging in detailed conversations with his patients.

For instance, he became intrigued by the neurological disorder known as apotemnophilia—the desire of perfectly healthy people to have a limb amputated, with many of them actually going through with the surgery. Some had speculated that this well-known disorder is a cry for attention, or stems from a form of sexual perversion, or that patients had seen in childhood an amputee and the image had somehow become imprinted as an ideal to them. In all of these speculations, people seemed to doubt the reality of the actual sensation—it was all in their heads, they implied.

Through simple interviews with several such patients, Ramachandran made some discoveries that dispelled these notions. In all cases they involved the left leg, which was curious enough. In talking to them, it seemed clear to Ramachandran that they were not after attention, nor were they sexually perverse, but rather they were experiencing a very real desire, because of some very real sensation. With a pen, they all marked the exact spot where they wanted the amputation.

When he did simple galvanic skin response tests on their bodies (tests that record the registering of slight amounts of pain), he discovered that everything was normal, except when he pricked the part of the leg the patient wanted amputated. The response was through the roof. The patient was experiencing that part of the limb as if it were too present, too intense, and this overactive sensation could only be done away with through amputation.

In subsequent work he was able to locate neurological damage to the part of their brains that create and control our sense of body image. This damage had occurred at birth, or very early on. This meant that the brain could create a body image in a perfectly healthy person that was highly irrational. It seemed as well that our sense of self is far more subjective and fluid than we had thought. If our experience of our own body is something constructed in the brain and can go haywire, then perhaps our sense of self is also something of a construction or illusion, one that we create to suit our purposes, and one that can malfunction. The implications here go beyond neuroscience, and into the realm of philosophy.

The animal world can be divided into two types—specialists and opportunists. Specialists, like hawks or eagles, have one dominant skill upon which they depend for their survival. When they are not hunting, they can go into a mode of complete relaxation. Opportunists, on the other hand, have no particular specialty. They depend instead on their skill to sniff out any kind of opportunity in the environment and seize upon it. They are in states of constant tension and require continual stimulation. We humans are the ultimate opportunists in the animal world, the least specialized of all living creatures. Our entire brain and nervous system is geared toward looking for any kind of opening. Our most primitive ancestors did not begin with an idea in their heads for creating a tool to help them in scavenging and killing. Instead they came upon a rock, perhaps one that was unusually sharp or elongated (an anomaly), and saw in this a possibility. In picking it up and handling it, the idea came to them to use it as a tool. This opportunistic bent of the human mind is the source and foundation of our creative powers, and it is in going with this bent of the brain that we maximize these powers.

And yet when it comes to creative endeavors, so often we find people going at them from the wrong end. This generally afflicts those who are young and inexperienced—they begin with an ambitious goal, a business, or an invention or a problem they want to solve. This seems to promise money and attention. They then search for ways to reach that goal. Such a search could go in thousands of directions, each of which could pan out in its own way, but in which they could also easily end up exhausting themselves and never find the key to reaching their overarching goal. There are too many variables that go into success. The more experienced, wiser types, such as Ramachandran, are opportunists. Instead of beginning with some broad goal, they go in search of the fact of great yield—a bit of empirical evidence that is strange and does not fit the paradigm, and yet is intriguing. This bit of evidence sticks out and grabs their attention, like the elongated rock. They are not sure of their goal and they do not yet have in mind an application for the fact they have uncovered, but they are open to where it will lead them. Once they dig deeply, they discover something that challenges prevailing conventions and offers endless opportunities for knowledge and application.

In looking for facts of great yield, you must follow certain guidelines. Although you are beginning within a particular field that you understand deeply, you must not allow your mind to become tethered to this discipline. Instead you must read journals and books from all different fields. Sometimes you will find an interesting anomaly in an unrelated discipline that may have implications for your own. You must keep your mind completely open—no item is too small or unimportant to escape your attention. If an apparent anomaly calls into question your own beliefs or assumptions, so much the better. You must speculate on what it could mean, this speculation guiding your subsequent research but not determining your conclusions. If what you have discovered seems to have profound ramifications, you must pursue it with the utmost intensity. Better to look into ten such facts, with only one yielding a great discovery, than to look into twenty ideas that bring success but have trivial implications. You are the supreme hunter, ever alert, eyes scanning the landscape for the fact that will expose a once-hidden reality, with profound consequences.

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