March 31, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized
It’s spring and the days are lengthening. Thoughts turn to holidays, and the chance to relax and wander through a part of the country you don’t know well. You look forward to simply going where the mood takes you.
Which is precisely what our ancestors did – all the time. It wasn’t until 1828 (the first steam locomotive) that anyone could go faster than a racehorse. Most people walked at two or three miles an hour. At walking speed you notice things a car driver doesn’t; you hear sounds, smell scents, watch the gait of other travellers in case of trouble. Our brains have evolved over millions of years to monitor, control and protect our identities within the limitations of our fragile bodies as we move from A to B by way of any interesting diversions. Meandering is the balanced state of mind and body. And we humans do it well.
A ‘meander’ is a geographical term describing the wide, sweeping banks in the lower course of a river. Given the obvious energy of the river in its upper stages as it tumbles over waterfalls and cuts through gorges, it suddenly seems to lose its force. Why?
Water never flows in a straight line. It’s all to do with what is called ‘helicoidal flow.’ Imagine constructing in a laboratory a long, straight channel across a bed of sand and then letting water flow in at one end. The water, rather than flowing smoothly, quickly becomes turbulent. It is all to do with friction. The water in contact with either bank, or along the bottom of the channel, is held back by friction and can’t go as fast as the water in the middle of the channel. Drop a twig near one bank and see how it is remorselessly pulled into the centre by the faster moving water and then caught up in an ebbing current and deposited on the other side. The water actually moves like a corkscrew, and by taking particles from one bank and mixing them up with other bits they get deposited on the other side. As the river reaches the flat ground near the sea it slows down and uses all its energy to create those beautiful, sinuous meanders… made up of a chaotic muddle of bits and pieces drawn from many sources.
Learning is never linear
The brain works like that – I call it “helicoidal thinking”. Contrary to the best expectations of politicians and educational administrators learning is never linear, it is much more like the meandering river, shaped by its helicoidal flow. When you are gently meandering and going where the mood takes you, you frequently find that you solve a problem which, when sitting uncomfortably at your desk, you just couldn’t work out.
That is why young children need playgrounds, and adolescents need mountains to climb. We adults especially need to meander again to escape the limitations of linear thinking. To meander is critical – always following a straight line may take you to the wrong place.