Flash of genius
The New Straits Times: Meditation is a process by which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, “thinking” mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness.
It often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. Meditation is recognised as a component of traditional medicine especially Ayurveda. We know Albert Einstein was keen on spirituality. But did he practise meditation? Could this give us an insight to his genius?
What did Einstein have that we don’t? Meditation is a process by which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, “thinking” mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness. It often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. Dr Thomas Harvey was the pathologist tasked to perform Einstein’s autopsy in 1955. Without the family’s permission, Harvey removed and kept Einstein’s famous brain. He stored the brain in jars of formaldehyde and studied it slice by slice. He also dispensed small samples to other researchers on request. There was nothing to show Einstein’s brain as extraordinary. But in the early 1980s, Marian Diamond, a neuroanatomist at the University of California at Berkeley, made some discoveries that could revolutionise ideas about genius and help us increase intelligence.
She worked with rats. One group was in a super-stimulating environment with swings, ladders, treadmills, and toys. The other group was confined to bare cages. The rats in the high-stimulus environment lived to the advanced age of three years (the equivalent of 90 in a man). More important, their brains increased in size, sprouting new glial cells, which make connections between neurons (nerve cells) Earlier in 1911, Santiago Ramon, the father of neuro-anatomy, had found that the number of interconnections between neurons was a far better predictor of brainpower than the sheer number of neurons. Diamond had created the footprint of higher intelligence through mental exercise. She then examined sections of Einstein’s brain and noted its unusual “interconnectedness.” There were greater numbers of glial cells in the left parietal lobe. This was a kind of neurological switching station connecting various areas of the brain. Neurons do not reproduce after we are born. That is fixed at birth. However, the connective hardware of the brain — glial cells, axons, and dendrites — can increase in number throughout life. When you increase these connections, you become smarter. It really depends on how you use your brain. Learning creates more pathways. When we learn a skill such as riding a bicycle, more connections are created. Mental power is, in a way, connective power. “Retarded” achievement Was Einstein’s mental development affected by some analogy to the swings, ladders, treadmills, and toys of Diamond’s super-rats? Did he, in some sense, learn his inventive mental powers? Einstein himself seemed to think so. He believed that you could stimulate ingenious thought by allowing the imagination to float freely, forming associations at will. He even credits to the development of his defining work – the Theory of Relativity – to his retarded development in his childhood years. “A normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time,” he said. “These are things which he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, and I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.” Einstein attributed his scientific prowess to what he called a “vague play” with “signs,” “images,” and other elements, both “visual” and “muscular”. “This combinatory play,” he wrote, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” Dynamic meditation Indeed, this was a form of meditation. There has been a long practiced type of active meditation called image streaming. Evidence suggests that the stream of images in our minds literally never ceases. Even when our minds are preoccupied with work, conversation, or other demanding tasks, the sensory mechanisms continue to generate imaginary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. Many of these images consist of memories, triggered by random associations. Others are echoes or reinforcements of our conscious thoughts at the moment. One form of meditation is to control these images while the other type is to follow these images with a single-minded focus. Image Stream makes use of all five senses, not just sight. Your brain is so wired that vision will always tend to dominate the creative process. LSD researchers discovered that psychedelic compounds tend to break down the boundaries between different senses so that you might “hear” the colour red or “smell” a Bach concerto. This is a process called synesthesia.
Synesthetic perceptions seem to flood our cortex from the limbic brain, without most of us being aware of them. Synesthetic references emerge in everyday language when we speak of the “coolness” of blue, the “sweetness” of a woman’s voice, or a “piercing” sound. These metaphors make no rational sense though we understand them instinctively. Einstein is the most spectacular modern example of a man who could dream while wide awake. With few exceptions, the great discoveries in science were made through such intuitive “thought experiments”. Over the years, reading biographies of luminaries like Einstein have lead me to the conclusion that geniuses are little more than ordinary people who have stumbled on some knack or technique for widening their channel of attention. Indeed, Einstein once wrote that “all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals”. This great ability to create can come from proper training with meditation to enhance the awareness of the brain and the interconnection between senses. So, in this fast paced life and “the need to be creative” world, do you meditate? If you do, well done. If not, imagine, how it would be if you did.