Brain Pickings

Something Deeply Hidden Behind Things: Einstein on Wonderment and the Nature of the Human Mind

How a simple compass oriented one of humanity’s greatest minds toward the truth of things.

Something Deeply Hidden Behind Things: Einstein on Wonderment and the Nature of the Human Mind

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her breathtaking recollection of the insight that made her an artist. “The whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

In 1946, five years after Woolf’s death, another one of humanity’s most luminous and expansive minds recounted arriving at a strikingly similar notion via a strikingly similar formative experience.


In a passage from his Autobiographical Notes (public library), sixty-seven-year-old Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) considers the nature of wonderment:

I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that we sometimes “wonder” quite spontaneously about some experience? This “wondering” appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensely it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from “wonder.”

A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit in the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct “touch”). I can still remember — or at least believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.

Complement Autobiographical Notes, a revelatory read in its slim but potent entirety, with Einstein on kindness, the secret to learning anything, the common language of science, his exquisite love letters, and this lovely picture-book biography of the great scientist.

Published January 5, 2016




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