Reflection on Nail Balancing

By Bianca Polak

5 September 2006


Last week’s class we started of with a discussion on the “Sensory Experience” book chapter of R.J. Christman, talking about the scientific explanation of the senses. Reflecting on this discussion I had to think back to the drama classes I did in the nineties and there is one exercise we had to do that I still remember vividly, which is to pretend you are baby and you are seeing everything for the first time. What do you see, how do you perceive it and trying to “look” at everyday things, materials for the first time in your life. And not just looking at it, but feeling it, hearing it, etc. At the time that was quite a mind-opening experience for me, things I took for granted suddenly got new meaning. It also reminded me of a poem that I first learnt about in my secondary school days, in which the poet imagines that she is living slowly, slower than the oldest stone and imagining that, she perceives the world in a different way. Things that are normally perceived as static are rushing. [1]

The nail balancing exercise was done with minimal instructions, to find a way to balance 12 nails on the head of another nail that was inserted into a wooden block. I was doing this exercise together with Bee Gek and we started of trying different ways to balance 1 or 2 nails on top of the head, but this all didn’t really lead to any solution, so we decided to do something different. We balanced the nail on his head (with the block on top) and arranged the 12 nails in a circle around the nail head, making sure that they were all touching the head. A matter of interpretation of balancing on the head… None of the other groups seemed to have managed to literally balance the nails on the head. I guess we came to a group consensus in a way that there wasn’t any viable solution to the problem.

When Winston came back, and told us that there is a solution, we all started trying again. I felt a bit limited having to share the nails with Bee Gek, because I felt a social obligation to do it “together” and try together, whereas for this kind of brain cracking exercises it is easier to try on your own. When Yew Hong came close to a solution, I tried it myself too, but found that it was still hard to balance them all on one nail. It was good to have a feel of it myself, rather than just looking at how the solution would work. Somehow during the second part of searching for a solution we were more working together as a group, in the sense of looking at what the others were trying and then trying it ourselves if it seemed to be a plausible solution.

This weekend one of my friends loaned me a copy of the New Scientist of Oct 2005 featuring a special on Creativity. Though a popular science type of magazine, there were some interesting articles in it that set me thinking on some of the issues. It also made me take out Douglas Hofstadter’s books “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and “the Mind’s I” out of my bookshelf again after reading the interview with him. Actually he was in my mind since I bought the book of Howard Gardner, as Hofstadter explores Gödel’s theorem making use of music, visual arts and some of Lewis Carol’s characters of “Alice in Wonderland”. In the edition that I have (published in 1999) he reflects in the Prologue on his artistic process in writing the book, which I have started to read again as it is very interesting. And in “The Mind’s I”, that explores the “self” by means of short articles by various philosophers in the cognitive sciences field, I came across an article, that I had read before, but didn’t recall, on “A conversation with Einstein’s brain” written as a dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise. This is sideways related to our topics of discussion, and would be interesting to read as another way of looking at it.

It leaves me with some questions:

  • Are highly creative people having a mental disorder?
  • Can creativity be “taught” or only stimulated?
  • Is creativity possible without self-awareness?


The poem that I talked about on the first page– original in Dutch plus English translation:


Ik droomde dat ik langzaam leefde
langzamer dan de oudste steen.
Het was verschriklijk: om mij heen
schoot alles op, schokte en beefde,
wat stil lijkt. ‘k Zag de drang waarmee
de boomen zich uit de aarde wrongen
terwijl ze heesch en hortend zongen;
terwijl de jaargetijden vlogen
verkleurende als regenbogen…
Ik zag de tremor van zee,
zijn zwellen en weer haastig slinken,
zooals een grote keel kan drinken.
een dag en nacht van korten duur
vlammen en dooven: flakkrend vuur. – De wanhoop en welsprekendheid
in de gebaren van de dingen,
die anders star zijn, en hun dringen,
hun ademlooze, wreede strijd….
Hoe kan ik dat niet eerder weten,
niet beter zien in vroeger tijd?
hoe moet ik het weer ooit vergeten



I dreamed that I was living slowly

slower than the oldest stone.

It was horrible: around me

everything rushed, shook and shivered,

what seems stagnant. I saw the drift with which

the trees wrenched themselves out of the earth

while singing hoarse and intermittent;

while the seasons flied

changing colours like rainbows…

I saw the tremor of the sea,

its swelling and hurried shrinking,

like a big throat can drink.

a day and night of short time span

igniting and extinguishing: flickering fire. – The despair and eloquence

in the gestures of the things,

that are stiff otherwise, and their pressing,

their breathless, cruel struggle….

How could I have not known before,

not have seen in earlier times?

how should I ever forget this again?



(translated by: bianca)



[1] As an illustration I have attached the original poem and my personal English translation of it (which doesn’t exactly expresses the full feel of the poem, but hopefully gives an idea of it)