Cracking the Code

A story is told about Archimedes, the ancient Greek scientist. While taking a bath, he yelled “Eureka,” when he noticed that his body displaced the water in the tub. Supposedly, Archimedes was so excited about this discovery that he ran naked to tell the King of Syracuse about it.

While I have yet to see a nude Andover student yelling “Eureka,” we all experience flashes of insight like Archimedes’. Some of these insights may come when we solve a math problem in a sparkle of intuition. Others may arise when we finally crack the puzzle of a beautiful but complicated Shakespeare passage. These sudden bursts of intuition delight and baffle us because we neither understand where they come from nor how they illuminate what is dark to us.

According to author Jonah Lehrer, this moment of inspiration results from the interaction of the left and right hemispheres of our brain. He discusses how scientist Mark Beeman “speculated that, while the left hemisphere handles denotation­­­­—it stores the literal meanings of words—the right hemisphere deals with connotation, or all the meanings that can’t be looked up in the dictionary.”

Lehrer uses a metaphor from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to explain how this interaction works. If the left hemisphere operated alone, it would be absurd for Romeo to compare Juliet to the sun since his beloved has nothing in common with a yellow dwarf star. However, the power of the right hemisphere to understand the connotation of the word enables us to grasp that Juliet “lights up [Romeo’s] world in the same way the sun illuminates the Earth,” according to Lehrer.

What remains a mystery, however, is the sudden and inconstant nature of inspiration. Why does the right hemisphere of our brain succeed in making connections when we least expect them, yet fail to produce them when we most need them? For example, where was my right hemisphere when the final question of my chemistry test stumped me? And why did it make a belated guest appearance two hours after the test only to torment me with the abrupt realization that I had made a monumentally stupid mistake?

Lehrer discusses how the psychologist Jonathan Schooler studied the inconstancy of intuition when he asked students to solve this puzzle: “a giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on its point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $100 bill. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid” or using a crane to lift it up?

Schooler explains how he made his subjects wear “goggles that allowed [him] to flash hints to one eye at a time. And it was startling how you could flash a really obvious hint to the right eye [and hence left hemisphere] and it wouldn’t make a difference. They still wouldn’t get it. But then you’d flash the exact same hint to the other eye, and it would generate the insight”­—the ‘Aha’ realization that the correct answer to the puzzle is burning the $100 bill.

Based upon Schooler’s research, I conducted my own experiment during my last chemistry test. When one question stumped my left hemisphere, I closed my right eye and looked for clues that would trigger a Eureka moment from my right hemisphere. Unfortunately, this experiment failed. Either there were no clues in sight, or my right hemisphere was out to lunch. In any event, the question was as hard to solve with one eye shut as it was with two eyes wide open.

It’s experiences like these that remind us that no matter how hard we work, there will be always be times when we will want to follow the advice of the impertinent gravedigger in “Hamlet,” who tells his co-worker, “Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will / Not mend his pace with beating.” In other words, we all occasionally reach what a wise person described to me as a point of diminishing returns—one where we realize that continuing to beat our brains cannot make the dumb donkey of our left hemisphere move any faster.

Perhaps that is why the ancient Greeks prayed to the Muses when they desired inspiration. Yet, somehow I don’t think it will help me much to invoke Urania, the Greek Muse of Mathematics, in the hope that she also dabbles in chemistry. I’m afraid there aren’t any divine or scientific shortcuts to bypass the inevitable frustrations and disappointments of learning. Eureka-like moments remain mysteriously inconstant and maddeningly infrequent. But, maybe that’s why they are also so wonderful.

Eric Meyers is a new Upper from Miami, FL.