“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” ~Les Brown
The human brain only weighs about three pounds. As limited as it sounds by size, it is unrestrained in its potential. When the limits of our physical body fall short, the mind empowers the body to accomplish what was once thought of as impossible.
Our bodies, for example, are not equipped with wings and feathers, so we are not able to fly. But the minds of the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur Wright) invented a way to lift the body off of the ground - they invented the first airplane in 1903. It isn't physically possible for humans to breathe underwater; nevertheless, the minds of Gagnan and Cousteau thought of a way to take oxygen under the surface with the invention of a SCUBA tank.
The above inventions are examples of human ingenuity, however this power goes far beyond just that as we will see below. Since the day you were born, the world has been teaching you what cannot be done. Society is very good at teaching us what are limitations are and these beliefs stop us from accomplishing phenomenal things. These are so entrenched in our minds that they require no conscious thought. However, in order to really accomplish extraordinary feats, you have to first believe that you can. Otherwise, you won't even try. I am not suggesting there is exceptional power in the mere act of thinking or just believing. Sit on a chair and think positive for 50 years - not much will come of it. Believing something will happen does not create a mythical quality in the world that will bring about that result - this is wishful thinking. Wishful thinking will not lead to results. It requires much more. It requires a firm belief, an almost delusional belief that something is possible and from there it requires motivation and consistent hard work. What I am suggesting is that you allow your mind to believe that you can accomplish anything. This isn't as easy as it sounds. If you think of an invention or a new idea, most people are quick to find problems with it. They can see a million ways in which the idea is likely to fail, but cannot see how it will succeed. In hindsight, the idea doesn't seem so unrealistic.
Look around you, everything you see is a product of someone’s thoughts. Someone, somewhere thought of an idea and then put in a lot of work to put the idea into action. If you are reading this article on a computer, iPad or mobile device, realize that the minds of many made that possible; this required the invention of screens, memory storage, batteries, keyboards, processors, etc. However, before these technological devices were brought to life, many people doubted the need for such inventions. In some cases, the inventors were even ridiculed for their crazy, nonsensical thoughts.
To believe in ourselves is so difficult at times that even the people who change the world can have trouble seeing the possibilities. Here is a quote by Wilbur Wright, three years before the Wright brothers invented the airplane, “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly.” Today, you can sit back and laugh at this assumption, especially if you’re reading this article on a plane while using in-flight Internet.
Some people will still have trouble seeing how extraordinary the power of belief is - they might attribute the above examples to human ingenuity. Yes we are clever, but that doesn’t mean that we have super abilities. Walk off a cliff and you can believe all you want, but you will fall - we call it gravity. If you are blind, believe all you want, you cannot see the world - you will be handicapped.
Or maybe not.
I am suggesting that the human mind is so powerful that it is like in the cartoons when the coyote walks off a cliff and does not fall until he looks down to realize that there is nothing supporting him. We work in the same manner, if you believe something, you will be able to accomplish it. It is when we realize a problem or think that there is a problem or believe in the first place that something isn’t possible that we fail. We fail even before trying. The coyote not falling is a ridiculous example, but one that is not very far from the truth. If you were blind, but you believed you could see the world and tried, I believe you will be able to “see” the world.
Let me give you an example of two men, one of whom I personally met, so that you understand the extraordinary capability of the human mind.
Ben Underwood was born in Riverside, California and at the age of two, his mother noticed a peculiar glow in his right eye. Within three days, this glow had changed into a white pupil, which in the medical world is known as leukocoria (or "cat's eye reflex"). Like any frightened parent, Aquanetta Gordon, Ben's mother, took him to the pediatrician immediately. Ben was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. Retinoblastoma is a rare cancer of the retina, the light sensing part of the eye, that usually affects children under the age of five. Fortunately, Ben's cancer was caught early, but it was extensive and in both of his eyes. Due to the extent of the tumor, Ben's right eye had to be removed. Chemotherapy and radiation proved futile, and doctors had to remove Ben's left eye as well. Ben awoke from surgery, crying out, "Mom I can't see you anymore, I can't see anymore, Oh mom I can't see."5
Daniel Kish, President of World Access for the Blind, has a similar story. He lost his vision to retinoblastoma when he was just a year old. Both men, however, had parents that did not allow their blindness to become their limitation, which seems to be the conventional wisdom. Daniel tells of how his parent’s didn't buy into limitations: “They wanted me to have the same opportunities, wanted me to function alongside peers, not be behind them. They raised me to be able to function within ‘normal society.’ The thought was our kid is boy first, the blindness is a characteristic of who he is not what defines him. I was presented with all the opportunities that typical children were presented with and was encouraged to try to avail those opportunities. This helped me to get self concept of no-limits philosophy. I really didn't feel limited and i felt that limits that were imposed were imposed from outside, not inside.”6
Ben’s story is similar. His mother decided that she wasn't going to let Ben feel disabled. She found strength within and hid her fears deep inside. She took his little hands and put them to her face and told him that he could see her with his two hands. She told him that he could see her and the world around him with his hands, nose, and ears. From day one, she never treated Ben as he was a blind child, he was just like one of her other four children. Ben took his mom's word that he wasn't blind. This powerful belief allowed him to adapt to the new invisible world that surrounded him.4, 5.
So where did these beliefs that they weren’t disabled lead these two men? Both men adapted to the world around them - they didn’t know any better and they didn’t have any other choice. They both developed echolocation. Echolocation is the ability to emit sound waves and then perceive those waves that bounce back from surrounding objects. Bats, whales, and dolphins use echolocation to perceive the world.
Animals that use echolocation have highly evolved organs that allow them to do so. Daniel Kish and Ben Underwood did not. But the belief that they could see the world and the constant effort to adapt to their environments led them to spontaneously use this million year old animal technology.
Daniel naturally started to create a clicking sound (called a palate click) with his mouth and over time he learned to interpret the echoes to visualize the world. The palate click is made by positioning the tongue on the palate, behind the teeth and then quickly moving it backwards.
I first met Daniel when I was at a magic convention in Los Angeles. At the convention, we sat in the middle of a crowded restaurant at lunchtime. To demonstrate his abilities, Daniel sent out his clicks in all directions, listened to them bounce back and then interpreted them. A moment later he was able to describe the restaurant just as I was seeing it - there is a door over in that corner, there is a hallway in the opposite corner, we are seated in the middle, but a bit closer to that wall than this. He was able to describe how far the walls were, probably more accurately than I could have, and was able to identify the height of the room.
A bit later outside, as we walked through the courtyard, he was able to navigate around by himself. Daniel walked up to a car and using his echolocation abilities was able to identify it as a sports car (it was a BMW Z4). He used characteristics such as shape of car and how far it was from the ground (he said it was a low car, the way a sports car should be). The magicians who had been with us and had the opportunity to see Daniel demonstrate doubted his abilities and pulled me aside to ask if he could see a bit and if this was just part of a magic trick.
Daniel tried to describe how his ability works. By bouncing sound waves from different objects, he is able to extract information about its shape, density, and distance. He then uses this information to construct an image. Ben Underwood had similar capabilities: he had developed this skill so well that he was able to identify a trash can while sitting on the floor. He could even sink a basketball shot.
Were these men gifted? Did they have an extraordinary ability that others lack? After all, their stories probably seem rare to most people. However, the amazing successes of Ben and Daniel weren’t some random inherent abilities or strokes of luck. Ben and Daniel’s belief that they were not limited in any way led them to overcome their “handicaps.” Both their parents instilled the no-limits philosophy within them. And the two men proved they were, in fact, limitless.
Unfortunately, Ben Underwood passed away at the age of 16, in 2009 after his cancer returned. Daniel Kish went on to study human perception and holds masters degrees in both Psychology and Special Education. Daniel has furthered the study of human echolocation and operates a non-profit organization called World Access for the Blind, which teaches these techniques to the visually impaired.
The first thing that Daniel does with a new student is try to get them to see the no limits philosophy and understand that there are no limits. He uses demonstrations of echolocation to show them what is possible - it allows them to see immediately the world they can access - he calls it the “aha factor.” A reality they never even dared to believe possible - something they wouldn’t even allow themselves to dream. Daniel has taught kids to play soccer, ride bicycle and function without someone always at their side. Next he plans to teach a kid how to handglide, but there are some challenges with this. He said, you can't figure out what's in front of you far enough ahead to react. By the way, Daniel has gone handgliding before.
The moral of these stories? You must believe in your ability to accomplish great things. You must also take action and make the effort to turn a mere thought into reality. This often requires diligence and a lot of faith in yourself. Feeling sorry for yourself or playing victim to life’s challenges is unhealthy and limiting; this becomes an excuse to keep you feeling small and unproductive. A more proactive, positive approach would be to repeatedly tell yourself that you have what it takes to succeed and to take affirmative action in order to accomplish your goals. You’ll be surprised at what you can achieve when you shift a negative belief about your ability into a positive one. Stay patient, determined and focused. Know that you have what it takes.
1Carter, Rita, et. al, The Human Brain book, 2009, p 44.
2Source: Inventor of the Week, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Engineering
3Anderson, John D., Inventing Flight. 2004. The John Hopkins University Press.
4Moorehead, Joanna, Seeing with Sound.
5The Guardian. January 26, 2007.
6From Sumit Dua’s personal conversations with Daniel Kish.