Einstein and Insanity

Albert Einstein once defined of Insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. While our first instinct is to agree to this proposition, and posit that with, for example, pain comes the learning of not doing it again, I believe that this very act of repetition, that of “doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a change”, is a high mark of intelligence.

Past the high age of scientific discovery, we have become less pioneering in our ventures and become more conservative in our belief. Since the general statements of 1+1=2 have been accepted, we have accepted these as clearly delineated truths. Up until recently, the majority of the world population stuck to the belief that there were indeed nine planets-no more, no less.

The key to this equation is Free Will, and the intellectual capacity to discern. The human being is endowed with two capacities: the ability to act by instinct, one he inherited from his primal ancestors, and the ability to rationalize, one that evolved with him. Instinct, is to react based on a given stimulus. Pain, for example, is a normal signal sent by the body to the brain that a part of it is “under threat”, or “under attack”. An animal, when he comes across a nut that is electrically charged, and is understandably hurt will, by instinct, move away and be wary of the nut. This is the high point of his intelligence. What sets us apart from this, is the ability to go against this natural instinct, and examine the various parameters of the situation. The nut causes a slight electrical charge. Man may reason that perhaps the nut may not always be electrically charged; static electricity, a loose cable, or some external parameter might have contributed to its electrical charge. While the lesser animal will not touch that particular nut again, even after the parameters have changed, Man has the capacity to defy his instinct.

Common sense emerged as a compromise between rationality and instinct. It is a collection of knowledge gathered from years of experience, maybe minutiae or comprehensive in its thought, but since widely accepted as general truth. For example, since it has been proven-both the results and its cause-that a damp object is a conductor of electrical charge, it has become common sense that one should not handle appliances with wet hands or having emerged from bath. Common sense “reined in” rational intelligence, to within the bounds of instinctive experience.


Proponents of common sense belittle those who repeatedly commit the same errors, since instinctive knowledge has proven the results. When the occurrence of a results falls under a large percentage, then by common sense this must be the truth. Unfortunately, much of scientific discovery relies on achieving or reaching that small percentage-there was a large percentage that the light bulb would not work, yet doggedly Edison seemed to commit to the “same actions, hoping for a different result”. The pioneers of flight were frequently ridiculed for committing to the “same actions, hoping for a different result”. Man could not fly, much less shoot himself to space.

Not that common sense should be disregarded entirely. The system of Common Sense exists to set a sense of order within society, and the larger part of human activity. The fallacy of the argument of common sense is to apply it to larger concepts that do not, by their character, have a clearly delineated “black and white”, or “right and wrong”. For example, many will believe that, by common sense, Democracy is superior to Communism, associating the former with greater freedom. In the face of overpopulation, birth control is the rational, instinctive choice. Democracy, however, is not a perfect system, and several countries, in fact, collapsed under democratic regimes. Europe initiated a widespread policy of birth control in the wake of overpopulation, but has since suffered a dying population negated merely by the influx of migrants from Africa or Asia.

Not that “repeating the same thing over and over again”, will always be a high mark of intelligence. Sometimes, there really isn’t a “small percentage” out there. So yes, sometimes going against common sense, and making it, is a high point of intelligence. A higher mark, however, would be to discern when to apply common sense, and when circumstances indicate that there is more than instinct would permit us to believe.

Einstein, as a scientist, must have had his “moments of insanity”. If it is to be believed, he suffered several failing grades from his academic years.   So one could ask if his definition was really an appeal to common sense, or a compliment for his fellow scientists.