Serendipity

Serendipity

The late W. B. Cannon of Harvard, in an interesting little book called “The Way of an Investigator ” (W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1945) observed that he sometimes came upon solutions to very difficult problems when he had long since set them aside as impossible to solve. The solutions seemed to flash into his mind. Dr. Cannon made inquiries and found that other people had the same experience. We can make use of his observation.

It seems that the business of making connections among neurons can sometimes be consciously forced and sometimes not. “Thinking too hard” may somehow block the very thing sought. Upon turning away from the matter a few moments, the needed connection may slip into place and the recollection of a name may come. There is more to mental processes than our humble analogy of radar implies. It is exceedingly complex, and very troublesome to investigate. We will try to clarify some features of the mental process again later, but this mention is made because serendipity is allied with memory.

At times we might make use of this information as follows: In an exam, when we “know we know” but cannot make the connection, moving on to the next question may save time; by coming back later, the pathways which were blocked for some reason (trying too hard?) may open up.

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