Imagine That!

Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius

Body Think

Solving this primate puzzler involves thinking with body feelings.

In our last post we posed a primate puzzler. How did the chimpanzee in Wolfgang Köhler's experiment reach the banana hung from a hook in the ceiling? As you may recall, after Köhler hung the banana, but before he brought in the wooden crates that he expected the apes to stack in order to grab their snack, one chimpanzee in the group outsmarted the scientist.

Here's what happened. Visualize the room, the banana, the chimpanzees and Köhler walking back and forth, preparing for another experimental round. Just as he walks under the banana, the chimpanzee...quickly climbs to Köhler's shoulders and snatches his treat.

Ah, you say. Of course. Considering the ingenuity of fitting sticks and crates together, this particular solution seems something of a let-down. Or it would, except for the fact that, faced with this puzzler, very few human beings jump to the right conclusion. Happily, some of our readers did!

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What is it the apes "know" that many of us don't? Clearly, this was not a case for formal language or logic. Although some great apes in captivity have been taught impressive vocabularies (in sign language or lexigram), Köhler's apes had not been formally trained in symbolic communication. Even human beings rarely arrive at the correct answer through verbal cogitation.

How do you climb a tree?

Which foot do you move for the first step of the salsa?

When you button your shirt, which hand pushes the button through the hole?

Chances are the "answers" to these questions do NOT come as a string of verbalized, linear instructions. If you are like us (and we think most of you are!), the visual image of a tree flashes through your mind, followed by another image - maybe visual, maybe muscular - of you reaching for a low-hanging branch, hauling your legs up and over, etcetera and so forth. And maybe, for that first salsa step or the button hand, you find yourself actually moving feet or fingers, as if to perform the movement or series of movements you haven't in fact transcribed into words. Because you aren't using words! You are thinking in a pre-verbal, pre-symbolic way, with mental images intimately tied up with tensions, postures, movements and gut feelings of the body. You are body thinking.

There is a physical logic to body thinking - and though it is not readily expressed in words or numbers, it does support a kind of language in which many human beings are really quite fluent. Dancers come to mind. So do people in all sorts of professions. Backhoe operators, puppeteers, surgeons, scientists and sportsmen, to name a few, often think with movements and tensions of the body. We all do.

In fact, body thinking is what Auguste Rodin had in mind when he sculpted his famous "Thinker," a man cogitating not just with "brain," but, as Rodin expressed it, with "knitted brow" and "every muscle of arms, back and legs..." So next time you give a piggyback ride to a child, think about how you are teaching them to think - with their bodies!

 

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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