The Postscript: Studying the Flatworm Principle
Published 12:54 am Wednesday, January 27, 2021
A friend of mine told me something so amazing, I had to look it up to see if it was true.
In 1960, a series of experiments was done with flatworms in which a bunch of flatworms were taught where to find food. This was news all on its own, as the flatworm is not a species known for its scholastic aptitude. But that wasn’t the interesting part.
It got interesting when the educated flatworms were ground up and fed to flatworms who had no idea where the food was and, miraculously, the newly fed flatworms found food, guided by some internal knowledge given to them by their cannibalized brethren.
These studies were done before I was born, so I am probably the last person to learn that you can get smarter by eating someone who knows more than you.
I’m not sure what practical application this has for my life, but it leads me to believe that we really have no clue where our good ideas come from.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I am writing a book and I have no idea where the book came from. Traditional wisdom says we’re supposed to have an outline and develop characters and preferably do this all in advance so we know exactly where we’re headed before we begin writing.
My experience was nothing like that.
I woke up with the trace of a story in my head—an idea would be overstating it. I’m guessing I felt a little like that flatworm, with just a vague idea of where I ought to be going.
I’m not smart enough to be a researcher, and I suspect people will know a lot more about these things after I’m dead, but I sincerely believe in the flatworm principle.
For the record, I am not recommending cannibalism. But I am 100% convinced that our best ideas are probably not entirely our own—at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about getting good ideas.
We like to dismiss intuition or a “sixth sense.” It’s not provable. No one has reliably located the nearest Waffle House using intuition in a double-blind study, so we don’t put much stock in it. But we also have no real understanding of where our good ideas do come from which, considering how much we’ve studied the brain, is kind of amazing.
We study butterflies and we know they come out of the cocoon ready to fly thousands of miles without a map or instructions. No one teaches them. They have no GPS. They take no classes. But we find it unremarkable when they navigate their way to sunny southern California using a great deal of specific and detailed knowledge they never learned.
“Well, that’s butterflies!” people say.
And I have to answer, “So, why can’t I do anything half as impressive with a brain roughly 2000 times the size?”
I am not optimistic that I will ever do anything as remarkable as a butterfly.
And yet, over the course of the past year, I’ve been writing stories that seem as if they’ve already happened—all I have to do is type them up—and they show no sign of stopping. I am delighted, but I can’t help but wonder where these stories come from. That’s why I found this information about the flatworm so fascinating.
All I know is, in the past year, I started eating oatmeal every morning. I now think it is entirely possible that my oatmeal is smarter than I am.
I plan to keep eating it.
Till next time,
Carrie Classon’s memoir is called, “Blue Yarn.” Learn more at CarrieClasson.com.