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How does the brain absorb new ideas?

by on April 9, 2012

Over the years, the Mother conducted numerous dialogues with students at the Ashram school in which she expatiated on the proper method of studying and diligently developing the mind.   What seem like banal exhortations are in reality infused with innate wisdom, as becomes evident when we juxtapose her insights with anecdotes from the lives of scientists such as Richard and Joan Feynman, Stanislav Ulam and Sofia Kovalevskaya.

Once the American physicist, Richard Feynman, was staying at house of his sister Joan (an astrophysicist).  As he was cogitating over a research paper, he said to her, “I can’t understand these things that Lee and Yang are saying. It’s all so complicated.”  She responded,” No, what you mean is not that you can’t understand it, but that you didn’t invent it. You didn’t figure it out your own way, from hearing the clue. What you should do is imagine you’re a student again, and take this paper upstairs, read every line of it, and check the equations.  Then you’ll understand it very easily.”  Feynman followed her advice and found the paper obvious and simple [1].

This little story illustrates a common problem.  We understand ideas only when they are presented within our mental frame of reference.  Let us hear what the Mother has to say on this topic:

Question: What is the nature of the power that thought possesses? How and to what extent am I the creator of my world?

Mother: According to the Buddhist teachings, every human being lives and moves in a world of his own, quite independent of the world in which another lives; it is only when a certain harmony is created between these different worlds that they interpenetrate and men can meet and understand one another. This is true of the mind; for everybody moves in a mental world of his own, created by his own thoughts. And it is so true that always, when something has been said, each understands it in a different way; for what he catches is not the thing that has been spoken but something he has in his own head. But it is a truth that belongs to the movement of the mental plane and holds good only there.

For the mind is an instrument of action and formation and not an instrument of knowledge; at each moment it is creating forms. Thoughts are forms and have an individual life, independent of their author: sent out from him into the world, they move in it towards the realisation of their own purpose of existence.… There is one thing certain about the mind and its workings; it is that you can understand only what you already know in your own inner self. What strikes you in a book is what you have already experienced deep within you. Men find a book or a teaching very wonderful and often you hear them say, “That is exactly what I myself feel and know, but I could not bring it out or express it as well as it is expressed here.” When men come across a book of true knowledge, each finds himself there, and at every new reading he discovers things that he did not see in it at first; it opens to him each time a new field of knowledge that had till then escaped him in it. But that is because it reaches layers of knowledge that were waiting for expression in the subconscious in him; the expression has now been given by somebody else and much better than he could himself have done it. But, once expressed, he immediately recognises it and feels that it is the truth. The knowledge that seems to come to you from outside is only an occasion for bringing out the knowledge that is within you.

The experience of misrepresentation of something we have said is a very common one and it has a similar source. We say something that is quite clear, but the way in which it is understood is stupefying! Each sees in it something else than what was intended or even puts into it something that is quite the contrary of its sense. If you want to understand truly and avoid this kind of error, you must go behind the sound and movement of the words and learn to listen in silence. If you listen in silence, you will hear rightly and understand rightly; but so long as there is something moving about and making a noise in your head, you will understand only what is moving in your head and not what is told you” [2].

Another edifying anecdote concerning the Feynman siblings is pertinent to this discussion.  When Joan was just thirteen years old, Richard presented her with a challenging college-level textbook on Astronomy.  She asked him, “How can I read it?  It’s so hard”.  He encouraged her by saying, “You start at the beginning and you read as far as you can get, until you are lost. Then you start at the beginning again, and you keep working through until you can understand the whole book”[3].  As it turns out, Joan Feynman kept at it diligently and went on to become an astrophysicist.

The approach that Richard Feynman recommended of re-reading books until you understand them concurs with an observation made by the Mother on the brain’s ability to absorb new ideas:

Question: Why are certain subjects so very difficult?            

Mother: That is due to many things — to the formation of the brain, to atavism, to the early years of education, particularly to atavism.

But there is a very interesting phenomenon here: each new idea forms a kind of small convolution in the brain, and that takes time. You see, you are told something which you have never heard before; you listen, but it is incomprehensible, it does not penetrate into your head. But if you hear the same thing a second time, a little later, it makes sense. It is because the shock of the new idea has done a little work in the brain and prepared just what was necessary for understanding. And not only does it build itself up, but it perfects itself. That is why if you read a difficult book, at the end of six months or a year you will understand it infinitely better than at the first reading and, at times, in a very different way. This work in the brain is done without the participation of your active consciousness. The way the human being is at present constituted, the time factor must always be taken into account.

Question: Is it the brain or the presence of thought that produces the shock ?                

Mother: No, it is the consciousness. Most people are not aware of it, but it works all the time in everyone [4]

In his autobiography, the Polish mathematician Stanislav Ulam (1909-1984) discusses the mental effort that he put in during his childhood to grasp the gist of complicated concepts which were beyond his reach:

Around 1919-1920 so much was written in newspapers and magazines about the theory of relativity that I decided to find out what it was all about (he was 10 years old at this time!).   I went to some of the popular talks on relativity, I did not really understand any of the details, but I had a good idea of the main thrust of the theory. Almost like learning a language in childhood, one develops the ability to speak it without knowing anything about grammar. Curiously enough, it is possible even in the exact sciences to have an idea of the gist of something without having a complete understanding of the basics. I understood the schema of special relativity and even some of its consequences without being able to verify the details mathematically. I believe that so-called understanding is not a yes-or-no proposition. But we don’t yet have the technique of defining these levels or the depth of the knowledge of reasons….

I had mathematical curiosity very early. My father had in his library a wonderful series of German paperback books-Reklam, they were called. One was Euler’s Algebra. I looked at it when I was perhaps ten or eleven, and it gave me a mysterious feeling. The symbols looked like magic signs. I wondered whether one day I would understand them. This probably contributed to the development of my mathematical curiosity. I discovered by myself how to solve quadratic equations. I remember that I did this by an incredible concentration and almost painful and not-quite conscious effort. What I did amounted to completing the square in my head without paper or pencil….

At about fifteen I came upon a treatise on the infinitesimal calculus in a book by Gerhardt Kowalevski. I did not have enough preparation in analytic geometry or even in trigonometry, but the idea of limits, the definitions of real numbers, the notion of derivatives and integration puzzled and excited me greatly.  I decided to read a page or two a day and attempt to learn the necessary facts about trigonometry and analytic geometry from other books [5].

According to the Mother, such arduous attempts to understand concepts that are beyond one’s capacity can create an opening in the consciousness that allows those ideas to gradually mature in the mind:

What is incomprehensible for you today will be quite clear in a short time. And note that it is not necessary that you should give yourself a headache every day and at every minute by trying to understand! One very simple thing is enough: to listen as well as you can, to have a sort of will or aspiration or, you might even say, desire to understand, and then that’s all. You make a little opening in your consciousness to let the thing enter; and your aspiration makes this opening, like a tiny notch inside, a little hole somewhere in what is shut up, and then you let the thing enter. It will work. And it will build up in your brain the elements necessary to express itself. You no longer need to think about it. You try to understand something else, you work, study, reflect, think about all sorts of things; and then after a few months— or perhaps a year, perhaps less, perhaps more—you open the book once again and read the same sentence, and it seems as clear as crystal to you! Simply because what was necessary for understanding has been built up in your brain.

So, never come to me saying, “I am no good at this subject, I shall never understand philosophy” or “I shall never be able to do mathematics” or… It is ignorance, it is sheer ignorance.  There is nothing you cannot understand if you give your brain the time to widen and perfect itself. And you can pass from one mental construction to another: this corresponds to studies; from one subject to another: and each subject of study means a language; from one language to another, and build up one thing after another within you, and contain all that and many more things yet, very harmoniously, if you do this with care and take your time over it. For each one of these branches of knowledge corresponds to an inner formation, and you can multiply these formations indefinitely if you give the necessary time and care [6].

The story of the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891), who lived in an era where women were not allowed to attend universities, offers an intriguing twist on our abilities to absorb ideas that we don’t immediately understand.  When she was little, her family had moved into a new house and did not have enough wallpaper to cover her room.  Her father decided to improvise and plastered her room with lithographed lecture notes of Academician Ostrogradsky’s course on differential and integral calculus(!).  She recounts this stimulating phase of her life in the following passage:

I was then about eleven years old. As I looked at the nursery walls one day, I noticed that certain things were shown on them which I had already heard mentioned by Uncle(her uncle loved to talk about mathematical concepts). Since I was in any case quite electrified by the things he told me, I began scrutinizing the walls very attentively. It amused me to examine these sheets, yellowed by time, all speckled over with some kind of hieroglyphics whose meaning escaped me completely but which, I felt, must signify something very wise and interesting. And I would stand by the wall for hours on end, reading and rereading what was written there.

I have to admit that I could make no sense of any of it at all then, and yet something seemed to lure me on toward this occupation. As a result of my sustained scrutiny I learned many of the writings by heart, and some of the formulas (in their purely external form) stayed in my memory and left a deep trace there. I remember particularly that on the sheet of paper which happened to be in the most prominent place on the wall, there was an explanation of the concepts of infinitely small quantities and of limit. The depth of that impression was evidenced several years later, when I was taking lessons from Professor A. N. Strannolyubsky in Petersburg. In explaining those very concepts he was astounded at the speed with which I assimilated them, and he said, ‘You have understood them as though you knew them in advance’. And, in fact, much of the material had long been familiar to me from a formal standpoint [7].

There are probably many such anecdotes from the lives of other scientists.

Mother Mirra Alfassa with students

Why is it necessary to develop the mind?

In this passage, the Mother elucidates on the need to develop the mind as part of self-development:

The mind, if not controlled, is something wavering and imprecise. If one doesn’t have the habit of concentrating it upon something, it goes on wandering all the time. It goes on without a stop anywhere and wanders into a world of vagueness. And then, when one wants to fix one’s attention, it hurts! There is a little effort there, like this: “Oh! How tiring it is, it hurts!” So one does not do it. And one lives in a kind of cloud. And your head is like a cloud; it’s like that, most brains are like clouds: there is no precision, no exactitude, no clarity, it is hazy—vague and hazy. You have impressions rather than a knowledge of things. You live in an approximation, and you can keep within you all sorts of contradictory ideas made up mostly of impressions, sensations, feelings, emotions—all sorts of things like that which have very little to do with thought and… which are just vague ramblings.

But if you want to succeed in having a precise, concrete, clear, definite thought on a certain subject, you must make an effort, gather yourself together, hold yourself firm, concentrate.  And the first time you do it, it literally hurts, it is tiring! But if you don’t make a habit of it, all your life you will be living in a state of irresolution. And when it comes to practical things, when you are faced with—for, in spite of everything, one is always faced with—a number of problems to solve, of a very practical kind, well, instead of being able to take up the elements of the problem, to put them all face to face, look at the question from every side, and rising above and seeing the solution, instead of that you will be tossed about in the swirls of something grey and uncertain, and it will be like so many spiders running around in your head—but you won’t succeed in catching the thing.

Well, it is to avoid this that you are told, when your brain is in course of being formed, “Instead of letting it be shaped by such habits and qualities, try to give it a little exactitude, precision, capacity of concentration, of choosing, deciding, putting things in order, try to use your reason.”

Of course, it is well understood that reason is not the supreme capacity of man and must be surpassed, but it is quite obvious that if you don’t have it, you will live an altogether incoherent life, you won’t even know how to behave rationally. The least thing will upset you completely and you won’t even know why, and still less how to remedy it. While someone who has established within himself a state of active, clear reasoning, can face attacks of all kinds, emotional attacks or any trials whatever; for life is entirely made up of these things—unpleasantness, vexations—which are small but proportionate to the one who feels them, and so naturally felt by him as very big because they are proportionate to him. Well, reason can stand back a little, look at all that, smile and say, “Oh! no, one must not make a fuss over such a small thing.”

If you do not have reason, you will be like a cork on a stormy sea. I don’t know if the cork suffers from its condition, but it does not seem to me a very happy one [8].

Mother Mirra Alfassa with students at a French class (1955)


  1. Siegmund Brandt.  The harvest of a century: discoveries of modern physics in 100 episodes, Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009, p 369 (google books)
  2. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 3, pp. 50-52
  3. Richard Feynman, Christopher Sykes. No ordinary genius: the illustrated Richard Feynman, New York : Norton, 1994, p 35 (google books)
  4. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, p 198.
  5. Stanislav Ulam. Adventures of Mathematician, Berkeley : University of California Press , 1991, pp 18-20  (google books)
  6. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 8, p 386.
  7. Sofya Kovalevskaya. A Russian childhood, translated by Beatrice Stillman, New York : Springer-Verlag, 1978.
  8. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 8, pp 181-183.

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