Your toolbox filled with wrenches and screwdrivers, if regularly used, can make you a better thinker. Manipulating mechanical objects, turning them around, fitting pieces together and watching the parts move, will exercise and expand your brain in ways your non-mechanical friends can’t imagine because it anchors you to the real world, where things either work or they don’t, while others are free to roam a virtual, but often impossible, universe.
For instance, over the past several months, I’ve come across two identical instances of a basic mistake, made by individuals who are most likely intelligent, well meaning and capable in their particular fields, but betray lack of experience with a wrench. In both cases, they took great pains to design a logo on a website, using three gears arrayed in a triangle, all of them meshed together. Even without looking at the image, most of you will immediately know those gears are locked in place, no movement possible. It may be visually interesting, but it doesn’t work in the real world, even though the designers may have had a vague notion in mind of those gears spinning away as they carefully laid out their graphic. The graphic here was approved and went live on the website. Ouch! It’s gone now. It’s a small point meaning little in those instances, but it shows how easily an idea that looks or sounds nice makes no sense when tested against the real world. How often do we encounter this type of thinking?
If you learn everything through words, whether in books or online, you can construct elaborate concepts and ideas that sound great but simply don’t work when tested. Knowledge of how things work gained from hands on experience applies far beyond the hands on world because it embeds the habits of checking each part, asking basic questions and following facts to their logical conclusions, a process sometimes glossed over by those building the big ideas.
An interesting article on Wired a couple of months ago, shows why this low-on-facts, high-on-ideas way of thinking can lead to criticism of anything that isn’t perfect. (That never happens in our comment section, does it?) The author labels these opposing views as the intellectuals versus the scientists and engineers:
Reform-minded intellectuals found the low-on-facts, high-on-ideas diet well suited to formulating the socially prescriptive systems that came to be called ideologies. The beauty of being an ideologue was (and is) that the real world with all its imperfections could be criticized by comparing it, not to what had actually happened or is happening, but to one’s utopian visions of future perfection. As perfection exists neither in human society nor anywhere else in the material universe, the ideologues were obliged to settle into postures of sustained indignation. …
While the intellectuals were busy with all that, the world’s scientists and engineers took a very different path. They judged ideas (“hypotheses”) not by their brilliance but by whether they survived experimental tests. Hypotheses that failed such tests were eventually discarded, no matter how wonderful they might have seemed to be. In this, the careers of scientists and engineers resemble those of batters in major-league baseball: Everybody fails most of the time; the great ones fail a little less often.
Still with me? OK, let’s add London taxi drivers to the mix, shall we?
Would-be taxi drivers have to learn 320 routes within a six mile radius of Charing Cross, which covers a mind-boggling 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and places of interest.
MRI scans of their brains, before and after all of that learning showed an enlargement of the posterior hippocampus, in other words, their brain changed as a result of what they were learning and doing. This is one of the very few studies confirming actual changes in the brain as it adapts to what you learn and do.
So what’s my point? If some people are grounded in facts and learn through interaction with the real world, you know, hands on tool users, and some are isolated in the world of words, not only do they think differently, their brains may be physically different as well. An explanation that fits with observed fact may be lost on those who don’t form opinions that way and actual brain changes due to different learning experiences and world views may make it extremely difficult to communicate with your opposite. Hmm, …
The longer you stay on one side or the other, the more your brain may differ from those with opposing viewpoints, not just your ideas and thoughts, your actual physical brain. Think about that.
I read incessantly, but I have always worked with my hands, too, and I think the hands on work is necessary to keep a person grounded and to guard against living in a fantasy. I honestly believe that working with tools makes you a better thinker
A lot of these ideas have been floating around in my head recently (I know, I know …) and I thought I would toss it out there and let some of you digest a bit of it and see what you think. Bring it up at your next family get together, … you’ll be the life of the party. 🙂 Or just add your ideas here.