Have you ever watched the movie Awakenings (1990) starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams?
It’s an amazing movie based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks and his patients who were affected by a rare neurological disease called “sleepy sickness.” The disease attacks the brain leaving victims in a paralyzed, statue-like condition, motionless and speechless. Dr. Sacks (played by Robin Williams) discovered a miracle drug that could awaken his patients from their sleeping state. Some of his patients had been sleeping for almost 50 years!
One of his patients was a lady who spent most of her days sitting motionless and speechless in a wheelchair. On some occasions, she would stand up and walk around mechanically for several minutes until she froze in place. Dr. Sayer watched this patient on several occasions as she got off her wheelchair and walked around the room for several minutes. She would always freeze in the middle of the room, unless she was given a slight push, which caused her to continue walking.
Dr. Sayer thought there might be something in the room that froze her momentum. Was it the light from the window, the background noise or something to which she was particularly sensitive? The doctor tried removing all obstacles in her path; however, she would still freeze for no reason.
The doctor kept looking for what could be causing these abnormal frozen postures, but it was impossible to find a single element in the room responsible. Maybe it had nothing to do with the physical elements in the room and the problem was simply and purely neurological.
One morning, Dr. Sayer had been trying, with difficulty, to help the lady walk across the room from her wheelchair to the window. She was still freezing, as usual, halfway to the window. Sayer grew tired and frustrated. He left the lady frozen in the middle of the room and walked to the window. He pushed open the window to breathe some fresh air and relax his mind.
While casting a quick glance outside, his attention was caught by some children playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. In that very moment, while standing in front of the window and staring at the children outside, he had an idea that helped him understand the lady’s freezing problem.
Half of the room had black and white square designs like a chessboard, while the other half was plain white. The lady was able to walk as long as there were patterns on the floor. She would freeze exactly where the patterns stopped. Dr. Sayer decided to paint the whole room with black and white squares so that the room would look like a huge chessboard.
To everybody’s surprise, for the first time ever, the lady walked across the whole room without freezing! This amazing finding was very important for Dr. Sayer’s diagnosis. He proved that these patients had awareness and that visual patterns were necessary to prevent them from freezing.
The majority of the movie centered not around the lady, but the drug that would break the sleeping state. I want to focus on the specific part of the movie which beautifully illustrates how Dr. Sayer applied creative thinking to his diagnosis.
Dr. Sayer would have never discovered the effect of the floor pattern if he hadn’t first come up with an analogy between the pattern and the game of hopscotch. In hopscotch, the player moves back and forth, hopping according to patterns drawn on the floor. Through analogical thinking, Dr. Sayer applied the principles of hopscotch to the medical problem and produced the answer he was seeking. Analogical thinking allows the mind to look for solutions through elements that have nothing to do with the original problem. By looking for similarities in unconventional places and by applying them to our present context, we can come up with amazing solutions.
Analogical thinking is very important if we want to stimulate creative thinking. When the mind is trained to think analogically, it automatically scans for possible analogical associations. Though Dr. Sayer produced his solution using hopscotch, he was not exactly thinking about the game before his epiphany. In fact, he wasn’t thinking about anything. He was tired, because he had already been thinking too much and couldn’t find a solution. Though he stopped analyzing the problem for a minute, opening the window for some fresh air, his mind kept thinking analogically, scanning everything that his gaze could reach. When he saw the hopscotch game, his mind made an instant analogical comparison and gave him a hint. That was his ”Eureka” moment!
If you have the chance to watch this movie, you’ll see one of the best performances of Robert de Niro’s career. You will also realize how delicate our brains are: a slight neural imperfection can completely change who we are.