You sometimes hear the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It’s most frequently attributed to Albert Einstein although it is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin or author Rita Mae Brown.
None of them said any such thing. And poor Albert, he gets more silly quotes (incorrectly) attributed to him than anyone else. I suppose the idea is that, if Einstein said it, it must be right. I’m not sure the actual author is known, but the quote is commonly found in Alcoholics (and others) Anonymous where it references the repeated addictive behavior.
I’ve always thought the insane thing was the quote itself.
Ask any athlete, musician or fisherman about doing the same thing, the same way, and getting different results. For that matter, the activities of political and social action groups often consists of trying and trying until the message finally gets through.
Consider the ancient adage, “Try, try, and try again (until you succeed).”
If you followed the advice of the quote, you’d try something, fail and just give up. Pretty silly, right?
Do you know the old joke about the couple from the Midwest visiting New York City for the first time? As they walked around, they get a little lost in the big city, so they approach a shabbily dressed street musician playing his violin.
“Do you know the way to Carnegie Hall?” they ask.
The violinist looks up with a sigh and says, “Practice, practice, practice.”
When I was learning piano I played scales. The same way every time, time after time. And while practice never made me perfect, it absolutely improved me.
The basketball player shooting free throws, the baseball pitcher throwing curve balls, the football place kicker making field goals — practice, practice, practice.
[By the way: I mean no offense to those who find value in the phrase. If a tool is useful to you, then great! Beauty, eye, beholder; totally!]
Recently I stumbled on a quote that I think nails the topic. It’s due to Lawrence Kubie (1896-1973), a rather unknown neurologist and psychotherapist. He’s so unknown that the only reference I can find is in the French Wikipedia plus a handful of works citations.
The quote I have comes as a chapter preface from science fiction author David Brin’s (delightful book) Sundiver. One of these Sci Fi Saturdays I may write about David Brin and his Uplift series (and other books). Brin is one of my favorite contemporary (SF) authors.
Brin is a scientist and writes generally “hard” science fiction. Sundiver is the first of the Uplift books and concerns a manned expedition into the chromosphere of our sun. It’s part adventure, part murder mystery, part first contact and generally a great read (would make a great movie).
None of which has anything to do with the Kubie quote, so here it is:
“The measure of [mental] health is flexibility (not comparison to some ‘norm’), the freedom to learn from experience… to be influenced by reasonable arguments… and the appeal to the emotions… and especially the freedom to cease when sated. The essence of illness is the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns.”
Now there’s a definition of (in)sanity I can get behind. Brin apparently elided parts of it to bring out the definition’s essence. The source of the quote is not provided, so it may be hard to track down (but I’ll try).
But for a non-clinical definition, I think it rocks. Basically it’s about the mind’s ability (if healthy) to grow and change. I particularly like the part about “insatiable patterns.”
So much of our behavior seems insatiable these days (and insane to my eyes). The need for the latest and greatest cell phone or car or whatever. The insatiable love of mindless destruction and violence. Have you checked out video games or movies (or even TV) lately? Have we completely given up trying to stem this awful tide?
Slap a warning label on it and that’s good enough?
The interesting thing about that quote is, by that measure, an awful lot of people aren’t doing too good in the mental health area. If you, like me, sometimes feel you live in a world that’s lost its mind, well,… yeah, maybe it has!
As an interesting connection, one of my favorite David Brin books is a standalone novel, The Practice Effect. In that book, a scientist finds himself on a world in which practice really does affect reality. If you start with a crudely made shirt and wear it every day, it practices being a shirt and over time becomes a fine garment. A crude stone axe becomes a finely crafted metal (or diamond) axe through use.
And when you stop using (“practicing”) something, it slowly reverts to its crude origins. It’s a delightful idea, which is part of what I so love about science fiction.
It’s also a pretty rippin’ yarn and would make an outstanding movie. I can never understand why Hollywood doesn’t use more of these great stories!