Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Story of Creativity: how the stethoscope was invented

I love stories illustrating how bursts of creativity are formed, and here is one I heard today.

   Laennec was a French medical doctor who encountered a patient that would change medical history forever.  She was not wealthy, smelt bad, a little obese, yet pretty, and Laennec did not want to press his ear to the skin under her breast to listen to her heartbeat—as he should have.
Later that day he was walking in a the Louvre courtyard where he saw two kids playing a game he recalled from his childhood. The game requires two people on the opposite side of a board. One person would scratch a symbol (perhaps a letter) on one end of the board and the other person pressed his ear to the board and tried to decipher the symbol from the sound alone.
Brilliant! That is how the stethoscope was born. Laennec experience this burst of creativity where he immediately knew how to listen to the heart and lungs better while standing further from the patient. Rushing back to the hospital, he finds the woman, rolls up a notebook into a cylinder, and presses one end on the patient's chest and his ear to the other end. It worked. Much better than the unaided ear. With refinements to this basic idea the modern stethoscope was born.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the mind as a rider on an elephant. The conscious component is the rider, who tries to direct the elephant, which is a metaphor for the subconscious.
Laennec's genius stems from the fact that his elephant was working on medical problems without the rider's awareness, and once it found something it brought it to the rider's attention—much as an elephant might stop without being told too if it sees something the rider cannot.
We should not lament the fact that our mind concentrates on seemingly irrelevant details when our consciousness focuses on a problem. Yes, our stated values can change according to environmental factors irrelevant to the good's worth. For instance, without our awareness, we state a higher value for a beer if it comes from a hotel whose prices are high, compared to the same beer from convenient stores, known for low prices.  
So what if our mind anchored onto something irrelevant to the taste and satisfaction of the beer. Because our mind is constantly weaving unrelated observations together, we suffer from minor (but scientifically identifiable) irrationality (the kind that helps behavioral economics earn tenure and sell books). Yet this irrationality is the womb of creative genius. Laennec was able to connect the kids' game with the patient, and modern medicine forever improved. Likewise, our mysterious elephant is a wrinkled ton of possibility, because of—not in spite of—many behavioral irrationality.

Sherwin B. Nuland
Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography
Lecture Seven: Laennec and the Invention of the Stethoscope
The Great Courses.

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