Mystery sculpture: how the brain eats up new things

mysteryHow often do our preconceived notions make us miss new discoveries as scientists?

I fear this happens very often.

What got me thinking about closed and open minds was of course inspired by my dog, Elvis.

I was walking her very early one morning last week as I often do out here in Davis, CA where I live. Yes, Elvis is an girl dog, named so because she was born on the human Elvis’ birthday.

She was nosing around doing her favorite thing in the world: sniffing. You see, Elvis was trained as a drug-sniffing dog before we rescued her so her world is even more olfactory-centered than the average dog.

I was watching Elvis when suddenly I noticed something very out of the ordinary: a strange wooden sculpture placed prominently in the middle of a circle of cement in our neighborhood that is akin to a little stage (See image above).

What the heck is that?

I wondered at what it could be as Elvis wandered off after the scent of some animal that had been tooling around the night before. To Elvis, the sculpture might as well have been invisible it was so irrelevant, but my mind had shifted into high gear with many questions…

Who had placed it there and why?

Who built it?

What is it?

Why is it sitting there at 7AM?

I was puzzled and intrigued….and still am.

I considered it’s shape, size, different elements, and how they all came together. If I was Dr. Seuss I could probably come up with some funny name for it like “Dimblebacker”.

I could literally feel my brain working at a higher gear, gobbling up this new thing…intrigued.

This experience got me thinking that the first time we see something our minds work differently. Our thoughts are more probing and it literally feels like our brains are far more active.

We are delving into the object and thinking creatively. Our minds are open.

If Dimblebackers were as common as dogs or cyclists in Davis, then my mind would not have spent much time or bothered wasting much in the way of neurotransmitters and sugar on it.

How often does this happen to us humans, even us scientists trained to investigate?

How often do we miss something important, perhaps even a discovery, because our brains are in “status quo” mode rather than investigation mode?

Often time someone is called a genius for having the ability to see something new about something old.

If an alien arrived on Earth from a planet where no creatures had legs, she would view the Dimblebacker with no more astonishment than a chair because to her both are novel.

How do we avoid the same mindset when studying the areas that we each regularly focus on whether it be cells, molecules, or blue-footed boobies?

Can we remind ourselves to take a fresh look at things from new angles.

Can we invoke the mindset of novelty with familiar things and discover new things about them?

I think we can train ourselves to look at the world with wonder and I believe that kids are more inclined to automatically be more open-minded. As a scientist I try to take fresh perspectives on everyday things such as cells and to challenge preconceived notions.

By the way, if you have any thoughts on what the Dimblebacker is and who made it, please let me know.

My guesses?

Some junior high boy’s woodshop creation (probably got a C- on it) that he was planning to blow up in this greenbelt the night before, but got distracted?

The focal point of a project of a UCD sociology student who was hiding in the bushes and recording numbskulls’ (like me) reactions to it?

A solar eclipse observatory for frogs?

1 Comment


  1. Your musings remind me of a favorite quote I had on a poster above my desk when I was a graduate student many decades ago. A little boy is looking up the short skirt of a young woman and the text said:

    Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.
    Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

    Which then makes me think of Szeged, paprika and vitamin C.

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