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The Echoes of Experience

Life propels us forward, but our learning journey is rooted in the past.

  • Writer's picturePatricio Ramal

On the Road to Wisdom: Mind the Speed Limit

“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

This claim from an ancient mathematician expresses the power of leverage, which, at least figuratively, can move the world. He is considered one of the most outstanding scientists of the classical age, if not of all time.

He invented the sciences of mechanics and hydrostatics, discovered the laws of levers and pulleys, which allow us to move heavy objects using small forces, invented one of the most fundamental concepts of physics – the center of gravity, discovered and mathematically proved the formulas for the volume and surface area of a sphere, and calculated pi to the most precise value known. This value was still used in the late 20th century until electronic calculators finally laid it to rest. These are but a few of his known contributions.

Ironically, he is most famous for a trivial incident that was likely caused by his apparent self-absorbed and quirky behavior.

A Suspicion

It was the 3rd century BC. King Hieron II of Syracuse commissioned a commemorative gold crown. Offerings to the gods for their benevolence is no time for skimping, so the king weighed a generous amount of gold and handed it over to the blacksmith. When the crown was finally delivered, its weight equaled the original weight in gold.

But the king was suspicious.

Not knowing how to prove this, the king called on his friend, the mathematician, to help him figure it out. He accepted the challenge. History tells us that he thought long and hard about this problem but could not find a method for proving that the crown was not solid gold. At the time, there was no way to measure the density of an object or calculate the volume of an irregular form such as a crown.

But one day, as he was getting into the bathtub for a relaxing bath, he had a sudden realization. Excited and forgetting that he was naked, he ran down the streets shouting, "Eureka!" "Eureka!"

As you might have guessed by now, the mathematician was Archimedes, and that Eureka moment, if not the first insight ever recorded, is undoubtedly one of the most popular.

What is an Insight?

An insight is said to be a clear, deep, and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation or the ability to have such an understanding. However, as with many words, insight can have various interpretations and is often combined with other words that make it even more confusing. If you've ever worked in marketing, you've probably heard the term consumer insight.

However, insight, from a neuroscience perspective, has a particular meaning. And to better understand this, a few basics on the brain will be helpful. 

In very simplistic terms, brains are made of neurons. A neuron, or nerve cell, is an electrically excitable cell communicating with other cells via specialized connections called synapses.

Neurons are classified into three types based on their function.

  • Sensory neurons respond to stimuli such as touch, sound, or light that affect the cells of the sensory organs, and they send signals to the spinal cord or brain.

  • Motor neurons receive brain and spinal cord signals to control everything from muscle contractions to glandular output.

  • Interneurons connect neurons to other neurons within the same brain or spinal cord region.

A group of connected neurons is called a neural circuit or network; therefore, the brain is a neural network. This is important because all of your beliefs, learning, and habits are encoded in these neural networks. The simple act of walking is encoded as a neural network in the brain.

A famous phrase in neuroscience says, "Neurons that fire together wire together." It was first used in 1949 by Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist known for his work in associative learning. Hebb's phrase reminds us that every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation triggers thousands of neurons forming a neural network. When you repeat an experience repeatedly, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons.

It can be beneficial to have neurons wired together. The neural network helps us learn, store, and recall information effectively. That's how habits are created. For example, when meeting someone for the first time, the neural network helps you remember the person's name through many subtle triggers you've learned through your own experience, consciously or subconsciously.

For these neurons to connect, there have to be synapses between them. Follow me back to Archimedes and the bathtub. As Archimedes stepped into the tub, he saw how water was displaced with his body and suddenly realized that he could use water displacement to measure the crown's volume. From a brain's perspective, that is an insight.

The connections between these neurons release energy in the brain, which is why having an insight can make you feel energized and excited. Insights change the brain. When you have one, your brain connects physically in a new way and can't go back. Most importantly, insights change the way you see and understand the world.

All of us have had this experience in our lives. Insights can happen at various moments throughout the day, most of the time when you least expect them. Some are small and subtle, while some are big, striking realizations, also known as epiphanies. An epiphany derives from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphany, which meant "manifestation, striking appearance."

By the way, the word epiphany originally referred to insight through the divine. Today, this concept is commonly used without such connotations, but a widespread implication remains that the epiphany is supernatural, as the discovery seems to come suddenly from the outside. But I digress.

Insights are commonly related to problem-solving and creative work. Still, they apply in any situation where an enlightening realization allows a problem to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Subtle insights can be frequent, as when you suddenly understand a joke, while deeper insights can be relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought. Deeper insights are often triggered by a new and critical piece of information, but a depth of prior knowledge is required to allow the leap of understanding. 

From Information to Wisdom

Leaps in understanding, at least the type you get with insights, require a previous depth of knowledge. We need insight to understand the world, especially our perceptions and beliefs about the world. Otherwise, how do we expect to derive meaning from it? 

It's important not to confuse information with knowledge. We all have access to information, but knowledge is created by insight. And with knowledge, people start to see themselves and the world differently. As we continue to have insights, we constantly convert information into knowledge.

But knowledge is not enough. To deepen our understanding, we must also use insights to transform knowledge into wisdom and, ultimately, wisdom into meaning.

The road to wisdom isn't a road at all. At best, it's partially paved and full of puddles and holes. Most of the time, there is no road.

The Road to Wisdom
Skipping Stones

To leap forward, we need the skipping stones.

And if insights are the skipping stones, aren't we all traveling at the speed of insights?

Patricio Ramal

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