Doggie Head Tilt?

Michael Metzger

Henri Poincaré’s flash of insight arrived as he boarded a city bus. Albert Einstein’s epiphany came as he imagined a boy riding alongside a light beam. When C. S. Lewis arrived at Whipsnade Zoo, he got a surprise – he believed in Christ as the Son of God.1 In each case, insight started with a surprise, not a search. Surprised? Welcome to the “doggie head tilt” – the first step for reframing religion in today’s world.

Henri Poincaré was the nineteenth-century mathematician whose insights advanced non-Euclidean geometry. But his work didn’t go forward until he stopped thinking about mathematics and simply boarded a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step,” Poincaré wrote, “the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it… upon taking my seat in the omnibus, but I felt a perfect certainty.”2 Halting one activity (“left brain” research) led to Poincaré’s “Aha” epiphany.

Albert Einstein unlocked the mysteries of electromagnetic field equations discovered by James Clerk Maxwell years before.3 But Einstein wasn’t delving into Maxwell’s theory as much as daydreaming about light beams. Taking a break from investigative work (a “left brain” activity) led to Einstein’s insight. Arresting or stopping the thinking process is what I describe as the “doggie head tilt.” This picture comes from my one talent – I can simultaneously hum and whistle. When I make this sound, dogs stop dead in their tracks and their heads tilt. Arf? It’s like a stun gun to the left hemisphere of the brain. But why in heaven’s name would we want to do this – stop the “left brain” in its tracks?

It’s simple – the “doggie head tilt” slows operations in the left hemisphere of the brain so that blood rushes to the right. The right is where insight occurs. The left hemisphere of a human brain excels at information, according to Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University. The right hemisphere deals with insight. It helps you see the forest for the trees, he says.4 When Henri Poincaré was mentally stuck and hopped a bus – a mindless activity for him – his left hemisphere was relaxed and his right half was revving. Bang! Insight! When Einstein dreamt about light beams, blood had shifted to the right hemisphere. Bang! Insight! When I get behind the wheel of a car – an essentially mindless activity for me – the insights start to roll in (of course, if it’s a completely mindless activity, Bang!).

This approach contradicts the classic model of focusing on facts, says John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University.5 Focus is about blocking stuff out. It only activates the left hemisphere. And, as Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem in the frame that created it. “There’s a good reason Google puts Ping-Pong tables in their headquarters,” Kounios adds. Fun and games loosen the left’s lock on your noggin. It’s a lot like hitting a baseball. Gripping the bat too tightly makes your arm muscles tighten up, crimping your wrists and slowing your bat speed when striking the ball. Focusing on facts gives the “left brain” too tight a grip and crimps the right hemisphere, slowing the speed of insight. That’s why intense people are rarely insightful people. It’s why fervently passionate people, even if they are Christians, rarely gain fresh perspectives.

This is doubly important for Christians, since we live in a “been there, done that” world where our “nation’s population is increasingly resistant to Christianity,” writes Barna Research Group president David Kinnamon. “The aversion and hostility are, for the first time, crystallizing in the attitudes of millions of young Americans… they want nothing to do with us.”6 The conventional model of evangelism simply presents facts about Jesus. But this activates the left hemisphere of the brain that delights in debate and is often resistant to new ideas. The “doggie head tilt” pushes people over to the right hemisphere. I experienced the benefit of this the first time that I read C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. My “left brain” judged Adam and Eve harshly for so quickly falling prey to the Serpent’s temptation. Yet, as great fiction so often does, Perelandra arrested my “left brain” and activated my right, so that I began to imagine the events of Genesis 3 as a slow, seductive slide – something I have experienced several times in my own life. Suddenly the story sounded very different… and made sense.

In his 1908 essay “Mathematical Creation,” Poincaré insisted that when you hit an impasse, “nothing good is accomplished” by repeatedly poring over the same data. You should distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey.” C. S. Lewis had wrestled with Christianity for a while but when he went on a journey in the sidecar of a motorcycle, the left hemisphere of his brain relaxed and his right was unexpectedly activated. Bang! Insight! Aha, it makes sense now… I’m a believer!

You might not have a sidecar available, but you can activate a friend’s right hemisphere when you open with the “doggie head tilt.” When, for example, a friend said he distrusted the canon, I asked him if he used Wikipedia. Arf? I then paralleled Wikipedia (something he did trust) with the canon. Aha! – a flash of insight. In a world where increasing numbers of people relegate Christianity to “been there, done that,” bearing down on the left hemisphere with Bible data is a dead end. As Einstein famously said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Insightful Christians open conversations with the “doggie head tilt,” knowing that Huh? must precede Aha!

1 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1955), p. 238.
2 Jonah Lehrer, “The Eureka Hunt: Why do good ideas come to us when they do?” The New Yorker, July, 28, 2008, pp. 40-45.
3 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 7.
4 Jonah Lehrer, “The Eureka Hunt: Why do good ideas come to us when they do?” The New Yorker, July, 28, 2008, p. 41.
5 Lehrer, “Eureka,” p. 42.
6 David Kinnamon, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), p. 39.


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5 thoughts on “Doggie Head Tilt?”

  1. Stanley Carlson-Thies

    Mike, very insightful and provocative. But isn’t it the case that Poincare, Einstein, and Lewis couldn’t have had their insightful moments without first having had a heap (or rather, disciplined structure) of facts relevant to the insightful conclusion? The insight is a different way of regarding those facts. So are you really saying that to communicate to the anti-Christian culture, we have to help people depart from the structured set of facts they are operating on (a cartoon of Christianity, caused by their misunderstandings or our poor witness) to help them approach things anew (thus canon=Wikipedia)?

  2. walter david disney

    I have come across many examples of this in my life. I usually gain those insights when I am doing good physical labor or engaged in a work out. To this point , I think our society’s devaluation of physical ‘work’ is detrimental for us. Science shows us that physical work(exersize) is good, even the Bible supports it as the garden neede to be tended(labor). As for ART, I have actually had the most insightful intimate times with Christ while reading a book…James Fenimore Cooper’s PATHFINDER.
    Good article…or should I say Arf…icle!

  3. Isn’t this activity of the left brain the constant chatter that our minds engage in, going over our past histories and jumping from one future scenario to another, always keeping us engaged in endless judgment and maybe keeping us from doing what we could in the present moment to improve our life. I like Walter’s idea that physical work can help to shut off that chatter.

  4. Mike,

    Right on the mark. I spend most of my day in facts, but get my ideas when I do something with my hands, run or drive. Good insight. In the world of stars, this is 3 1/2 Arfs. Dwight

  5. Stanley hits the nail on the head with his observation. Yes, insight is a different way of seeing your “stuff,” or facts. Yes, you first need to have a heap of facts (I’m not sure that they have to be well organized) to give you a flash of insight. George Lakoff and others call this “reframing,” or rearranging the way see the facts, particularly important in a culture leaning away from Christianity. Again, great contribution to this conversation, Stanley.

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