Excerpt from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

by Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 408 pages
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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Another, less famous example of false causality occurred in New York in 1956. A young physicist, Chen Ning Yang, and his colleague, Tsung-Dao Lee, were in the habit of discussing apparent inconsistencies involving newly recognized particles coming out of accelerators while relaxing over a meal at a Chinese restaurant on 125th Street in Manhattan frequented by faculty and students from Columbia University. One day the solution that explained one of the basic forces in the atom suddenly struck Yang, and within a year the two shared one of the quickest Nobel Prizes (in Physics) ever awarded. After the award was announced, the restaurant placed a notice in the window proclaiming “Eat here, get Nobel Prize.”

Pathways of Creative Thought
Researchers and creative thinkers themselves generally describe three pathways of thought that lead to creative insight: reason, intuition, and imagination.

Three Pathways of Creative Thought
Reason Intuition Imagination
Logic Informal patterns of expectation Visual imagery born of experience

While reason governs most research endeavors, the most productive of the three pathways is intuition. Even many logicians admit that logic, concerned as it is with correctness and validity, does not foster productive thinking. Einstein said, “The really valuable factor is intuition. . . . There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”

The order lying behind the appearance: this is what so many of the great discoveries in medicine have in common. Such intuition requires asking questions that no one has asked before. Isidor Rabi, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist, told of an early influence on his sense of inquiry. When he returned home from grade school each day, his mother would ask not “Did you learn anything today?” but “Did you ask a good question today?”18 Gerald Edelman, a Nobel laureate in medicine, affirms that “the asking of the question is the important thing. . . . The idea is: can you ask the question in such a way as to facilitate the answer? And I think really great scientists do that.” Intuition is not a vague impulse, not just a “hunch.” Rather, it is a cognitive skill, a capability that involves making judgments based on very little information. An understanding of the biological basis of intuition — one of the most important new fields in psychology — has been elaborated by recent brain-imaging studies. In young people who are in the early stages of acquiring a new cognitive skill, the right hemisphere of the brain is activated. But as efficient pattern-recognition synthesis is acquired with increasing age, activation shifts to the left hemisphere. Intuition, based upon long experience, results from the development in the brain of neural networks upon which efficient pattern recognition relies.20 The experience may come from deep in what has been termed the “adaptive unconscious” and may be central to creative thinking.

As for imagination, it incorporates, even within its linguistic root, the concept of visual imagery; indeed, such words and phrases as “insight” and “in the mind’s eye” are derived from it. Paul Ehrlich, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908 for his work on immunity, had a special gift for mentally visualizing the three-dimensional chemical structure of substances. “Benzene rings and structural formulae disport themselves in space before my eyes. . . . Sometimes I am able to foresee things recognized only much later by the disciples of systemic chemistry.”22 Other scientists have displayed a similar sort of talent leading to breakthroughs in understanding structures.

Excerpted from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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