Not All Wandering Minds Are Lost

River_river-krka-slovenia-autumn-nature-940367In 1870 a 23-year old budding inventor arrived from Scotland with his parents at their new home near the banks of the Grand River just outside of Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  He expected he would soon succumb to tuberculosis as his younger and older brothers had before him.  Instead, he survived and flourished in his new environment.  Over the next four years, he worked as a teacher while toiling painstakingly to invent a revolutionary new technology that remained just beyond his grasp.

From time to time he would retreat to a spot, near the river behind the family house, he called his “dreaming place” and “…dream away the afternoon in luxurious idleness.”(1) One day in his reverie he reflected upon the ripples of the river passing by him.  There in a flash of insight, he saw the answer to the problem that had eluded him in spite of his best efforts over such a long time.

Noticing the ebb and flow of the river current reminded him of how sound waves move through the air, leading him to realize “it would be possible to transmit sounds of any sort” (2) by using electricity and controlling the intensity of the current.  Thus, in an experience of syntheney in the late 19th century was born a technology as revolutionary then as the advent of the Internet in the late 20th century, the telephone of Alexander Graham Bell.

The Role Of Mind-Wandering In Achieving Syntheney

Alexander Graham Bell exemplifies the role of mind-wandering in achieving syntheney.

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Syntheney is the perception of a natural harmony first seen when you aren’t looking:

  • it is the connection that has always been there but heretofore unseen,
  • it is the expression so unfamiliar it challenges us to reach beyond our grasp to find the distant connection that renders it meaningful,
  • it is the surprise that transforms possibility into opportunity,
  • it is the discovery so succinct, so fundamental, and so obvious in an instant after its articulation it elicits a lively “Of course…!”

Bell’s instance of syntheney was the connection of a remote association between the undulating current of the river and his understanding of how sound waves move through the air, revealing how he could use electricity to transmit all types of sound by controlling the intensity of the electrical current.

The Aha! realized in syntheney is often referred to as a solution to a problem.  It can be, yet it can be likewise an enabler of an opportunity, as in the case of Bell.  What follows here applies equally to both.

Problem Solving

People tend to approach problem-solving either analytically or insightfully.  Each approach has its place.  An analytical approach involves a deliberate trial and error method to identify or optimize the “best” solution.  An insightful approach involves the four steps below in reaching an abrupt “Aha!” break-through, seen as the better approach for achieving truly creative “out-of-the-box” solutions.

  • Immersion – For a clear and memorable explanation of “Immersion,” we can look to Herman von Helmholtz, a German physician, and a physicist with contributions in many fields of science to his credit.  He said his pursuit of insight required that he had considered his problem from all sides to such a degree he could hold all of its angles and complexities in his head.
    • Here you either may be studying the problem and the issues it presents, or you may be attempting to solve the problem.
  • Diversion – Once suitably immersed in a problem, the next step is to cease consciously considering it.
    • Go for a walk.  Have a workout.  Give your undivided attention to family or friends. Catch up on unrelated reading.  Yes, even sleep, since there are no guarantees of exactly when your Aha! will arrive, although there are many reports of fully formed Ahas! arriving at or soon after the moment of awakening.
  • Incubation – During diversion from consciously pursuing a solution to your problem, your brain remains able to engage in unconscious cognition.
    • As referenced in Scientific American Mind, “The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections…neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes).” (3)
    • These memories (facts, people, feelings, events, etc.) are the rich field surveyed during mind-wandering.  While you are mind-wandering, unconscious cognition seeks associative connections among all of your memories to bring to conscious awareness those associations that can trigger the Aha! resolving your problem.
  • Illumination – Your Aha! arrives.  Celebrate it for what it is and remember others are available for the taking if you allow them to appear.




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