October 15 – The ever expanding balloon of our mind

October 15. “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

If you have ever blown up a new balloon, fresh out of the bag, think for a moment about how that usually goes. Most people, when handed a new balloon will take it in their hand and pull on the edges a bit, stretching it in several directions before puffing in that first breath. You might not even be aware that you do it, but my guess is that you do. When asked why, people will say that stretching the balloon first makes it easier to blow it up.

Now, think a bit about that first push of air into the balloon. Often it is still hard to get that first bit of air in. It will take some pushing from your lungs to get the balloon to begin to inflate. But then something interesting happens. Once a bit of the air is in the balloon, and it starts to inflate, it suddenly becomes easier. This can be seen as the balloon first begins to fill slowly, then there will be a sudden increase in the size as the person blowing it up pushes through that initial point.

Next, think about what happens when the air is let out of the balloon. Have you ever compared it to another that is fresh from the package? If you have, then you know that once the balloon has been blown up, it looks different. Despite the elasticity of the material, it never goes back to that original shape. And the next time you try to blow it up, it is far easier than that initial experience.

Why so much discussion about the lowly balloon? Because our minds, in some respects, are just like a balloon.

Think back to something that was difficult for you to learn. Maybe it was a new language, maybe it was how to solve an equation in math. Perhaps it was a new field of study where you didn’t know the vernacular of the subject. It could have been when you got a new job and all the faces and names and projects were unfamiliar. For any of those things, and hundreds more, there was a time when it was hard to get your brain inflated with the information needed. Your mind, like that balloon that is fresh from the bag, was tight and needed to be stretched.

As you learned your way through those initial hours and days, your mind started to stretch some. As you kept at it, things began to get easier. At some point, your mind hit that same spot as the balloon, and suddenly it was far easier to take on the knowledge, and your capacity grew almost exponentially.

There are some things that I have learned in my career that I no longer use on a daily basis. I have learned the terminology and particulars of a project, and spent time immersed in the knowledge, only to later move on to another project with new things to learn. On occasion I have had things from my previous experiences pop back into my life. Whenever that has happened, I have been amazed at how quickly I have picked up on what I previously knew. I may not have perfect recall of all the facts, but the framework is still there, and the information comes in quickly. Again, my mind is like that balloon. Even after I have allowed that portion of it to “deflate”, the ease of inflating it always there.

In the coming weeks I will be starting a new assignment at work. As I am sitting here this morning my reflection is on how my mind will be stretched in new directions as I learn the people and projects associated with my new team, and my new department. I will be leaving behind a project that has been at the center of my work life for nearly five years, but I know that part of my mind will never completely go back to where it was. In many ways, this project will be with me forever as a part of who I am, and how my mind has grown.

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