Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Improvement of the Mind and Michael Faraday

Here's some very good advice from 1741, Isaac Watt's "Improvement of the Mind." This text was inspirational to Michael Faraday (one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century) who as a young man, resolved to discipline himself and improve his mind by reading good books, taking good notes, and studying the habits of admirable people.

Faraday thought his poverty and lack of education would prevent him from becoming a scientist, but his big break came when he won tickets to attend four scientific lectures by Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution.

An excerpt:

"Books of Importance

1. Books of importance of any kind should be first read in a more general and cursory manner.
2. If three or four persons agree to read the same book, it will render the reading beneficial to every one of them.
3.Several persons engaged in the same study promote each other's improvement.
4. Your chief business is to consider whether the authors' opinions are right or no, and to improve your own solid knowledge.
5. If a writer does not explain his ideas or prove the positions well, mark the faults or defects and endeavour to do it better.
6. If the method of a book be irregular, reduce it into form by a little analysis of your own.
7. If a book has no index to it, or good table of contents, make one.
8. Make all your reading subservient not only to the enlargement of your treasures of knowledge, but also to the improvement of your reasoning powers.
9. Be diligent into the sense and arguments of the authors.
10. Never apply yourselves to read any author with a determination beforehand either for or against him.
a. Nor should any of our opinions be so resolved upon, especially in younger years, as never to hear or to bear opposition to them.
b. When we peruse those authors who defend our own settled sentiments, we should not take all their arguments for just and solid.
c. When we read those authors which oppose our most certain and established principles, we should be ready to receive any informations from them in other points.
11. When our consciences are convinced that these rules of prudence or duty belong to us, and require our conformity to them, we should then call ourselves to account."

Improvement of the Mind


  1. Hi, I am a teacher interested in learning and brain research as relevent to that. I find the research on your site very interesting.

    I thought I would add a few thoughts about Michael Faraday.

    Michael Faraday developed the notion of field lines to explain how motors work. In one of my resources it said that he hadn't had very much maths education and his only way to explain what was going on was to create this very visual model... instead of using maths equations as was the typical approach of physicists of the time. This notion of a field is now used in electrostatics, quantum and gravity... and I am sure many other areas ... and is a crucial addition to our thinking of physics phenomena.

    Given you are interested in aspects of brain function, it would be interesting to surmise how Faraday's brain worked? How does such originality in perception of how things might work arise? Do our deficiencies in some areas allow greater reliance and perception through others? How can ordinary people use this to advantage?

  2. Great questions, sue.

    Faraday was probably born with some talent, but he also became very serious about training himself to be a scientist.

    Apparently at that time, some scholars opened up young mens' clubs for learning that anyone could join, and these fellows read and discussed books and debated topics. Isaac Watts' book Improvement of the Mind was also very important to him.

    But you're right - there's something about his spatial genius - and that was almost certainly helped by all the work he did with his hands.

    It's an even bigger question, how can ordinary people use this to their advantage. But I have to think some part is intrinsic (our wiring we are born with) and the rest extrinsic (what we do with it).

    The most successful innovators seem to fall in love with their subjects, and then learn what ever they need to do what they want. The visual-verbal split is a real one. It's possible to be even in both, but it's more common to prefer one way of thinking much more over the other. It's good to work on your weaknesses, but it's much more common to achieve great things using your strengths.