DoubleThink

There is a switch in your mind which I would advise you to turn off, and then on, every now and then. I am referring to the switch of familiarity. Think about the day you had yesterday: You will most likely recall the one or two things out of the ordinary that happened, and gloss over the rest. It is all this terrain that has been glossed over, this ordinariness, which you should examine every now and then.

Go back to yesterday morning. You woke up and, hopefully, you showered. As the cold water first began to pour out of the shower head, and as you cowered behind the shower curtain waiting for it to warm up, you thought. You thought about how long the water would take to warm up, how much you would like to be sleeping, how late you were, or what you would have for breakfast. But you did not think about the shower itself.

You did not consider that, by desperately turning that hot water knob to its limits, you were opening one of two valves. It escaped you that this opened valve reduced the pressure in one of two pipes around your shower head, forcing the water out. You did not think about the water circulating inside a pump, somewhere in your house, or the pipe which feeds it water through miles and miles of underground pipes. You did not think about the hundreds of kilometers of piping that lie under everywhere you go in the city, or the dam which feeds them. You could not even begin to imagine the millions of tons of water that rained down onto that dam, after being collected, drop by drop, from the blades of grass, tree leaves and soil, by the sun.

As you commuted to wherever it is that you commute to, you listened to some music. It did not strike you as odd that, out of all the living creatures on earth, we are the only species that produces elaborate sounds for no particular reason. The fact that you have physiological responses to these sounds – that your eyes water with a resonating string but not a thumping drum, that your heart races with some combinations of pitch but not others- escaped you.

When you remembered the last time you went dancing to that particular song, you found nothing strange about it. The hundred people who packed themselves uncomfortably for hours in a low-lit room, moving their limbs in sync to a sound louder than a car horn, mildly poisoning themselves with diluted ethanol, were perfectly commonplace. So common and familiar, in fact, that you just glossed them over.

And you were right in doing so. Despite all the motivational posters praising child-like wonder, spending your days baffled by everything around you would really not get anyone very far. If living beings had to continually take in the staggering complexity of reality, we would not be living for very long. All this information that you have already taken in has to be glossed over because there are plenty of other things, newer things, that require your consideration more urgently. But just because you’ve seen something a few times does not mean that you’ve seen all there is to it; There is much of interest that you could be missing.

Flicking this “switch” of the familiar off has produced many of mankind’s most important advances. The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus saw stars moving with a predictable pattern where everyone else saw the inexplicable whims of the gods, and he kicked off the notion of science as we know it. In the 17th century, Francesco Redi discovered one of the principles of medicine when he observed the spread of disease by rotting corpses. Redi did not see an act of god or the spontaneous generation of infection, but the transfer of something harmful by flies from a corpse to healthy individuals. More famously, Einstein observed the universe and saw that space and time were not only an unchanging stage to the way the universe worked. Contrary to what had been taught by Newton and his contemporaries, Einstein saw that space and time interacted with energy and matter as active participants, leading to his theory of relativity.

These men did not, at first, have more information than any of their colleagues, nor were they necessarily faster or better in computing the available facts. What sets them apart is that they discarded the familiar notions that had been handed down to them unexamined, and took a good look for themselves.

You may be incredibly busy dealing with the complex problems that actually demand your attention, or you may not be too interested in indoor plumbing, fluid mechanics or the social psychology of music. This is understandable. All I recommend is that, every now and then, you choose something in your life and try to look at it as if you’d never even heard about it before. Big things could happen.

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