Monday 26 September 2022

Where Do Ideas Come From?

By Keith Tidman

Just as cosmic clouds of dust and gas, spanning many light-years, serve as ‘nurseries’ of new stars, could it be that the human mind similarly serves as a nursery, where untold thought fragments coalesce into full-fledged ideas?

At its best, this metaphor for bringing to bear creative ideas would provide us with a different way of looking at some of the most remarkable human achievements in the course of history.

These are things like Michelangelo’s inspired painting, sculpting, architecture, and engineering. The paradigm-shifting science of Niels Bohr and Max Planck developing quantum theory. The remarkable compositions of Mozart. The eternal triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — whose intellectual hold remains to today. The piercing insights into human nature memorably expressed by Shakespeare. The democratic spread of knowledge achieved through Gutenberg’s printing press. And so many more, of course.

To borrow from Newton (with his nod to the generations of luminaries who set the stage for his own influences upon science and mathematics), might humbler souls, too, learn to ‘stand on the shoulders of such giants’, even if in less remarkable ways? Yet still to reach beyond the rote? And, if so, how might that work?

I would say that, for a start, it is essential for the mind to be unconstrained by conformance and orthodox groupthink in viewing and reconceiving the world: a quest for patterns. The creative process must not be sapped by concern over not getting endeavours right the first or second or third time. Doubting ideas, putting them to the test through decomposition and recomposition, adds to the rigour of those that optimally survive exploitation and scrutiny.

To find solutions that move significantly beyond the prevailing norms requires the mind to be undaunted, undistracted, and unflagging. Sometimes, how the creative process starts out — the initial conditions, as well as the increasing numbers of branching paths along which those conditions travel — greatly shapes eventual outcomes; other times, not. All part of the interlacing of analysis and serendipitous discovery. I think that tracing the genealogy of how ideas coalesce informs that process.

For a start, there’s a materialistic aspect to innovative thought, where the mind is demystified from some unmeasurable, ethereal other. That is, ideas are the product of neuronal activity in the fine-grained circuity of the brain, where hundreds of trillions of synapses, acting like switches and routers and storage devices, sort out and connect thoughts and deliver clever solutions. Vastly more synapses, one might note, than there are stars in our Milky Way galaxy!

The whispering unconscious mind, present in reposed moments such as twilight or midnight or simply gazing into the distance, associated with ‘alpha brain waves’, is often where creative, innovative insights dwell, being readied to emerge. It’s where the critical mass of creative insights is housed, rising to challenge rigid intellectual canon. This activity finds a force magnifier in the ‘parallel processing’ of others’ minds during the frothy back and forth of collaborative dialogue.

The panoply of surrounding influences helps the mind set up stencils for transitioning inspiration into mature ideas. These influences may germinate from individuals in one’s own creative orbit, or as inspiration derived from the culture and community of which one is a part. Yet, synthesising creative ideas across fields, resulting in multidisciplinary teams whose members complement one another, works effectively to kindle fresh insights and solutions.

Thoughts may be collaboratively exchanged within and among teams, pushing boundaries and inciting vision and understanding. It’s incremental, with ideas stepwise building on ideas in the manner famously acknowledged by Newton. Ultimately, at its best the process leads to the diffusion of ideas, across communities, as grist for others engaged in reflection and the generation of new takes on things. Chance happenings and spontaneous hunches matter, too, with blanks cooperatively filled in with others’ intuitions.

As an example, consider that, in a 1959 talk, the Nobel prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, challenged the world to shrink text to such an extent that the entire twenty-four-volume Encyclopedia Britannica could fit onto the head of a pin. (A challenge perhaps reminiscent of the whimsical question about ‘the number of angels fitting on the head of a pin’, at the time intended to mock medieval scholasticism.) Meanwhile, Feynman believed there was no reason technology couldn’t be developed to accomplish the task. The challenge was met, through the scaling of nanotechnology, two and a half decades later. Never say never, when it comes to laying down novel intellectual markers.

I suggest that the most-fundamental dimension to the origination of such mind-stretching ideas as Feynman’s is curiosity — to wonder at the world as it has been, as it is now, and crucially as it might become. To doggedly stay on the trail of discovery through such measures as what-if deconstruction, reimagination, and reassembly. To ferret out what stands apart from the banal. And to create ways to ensure the right-fitting application of such reinvention.

Related is a knack for spotting otherwise secreted links between outwardly dissimilar and disconnected things and circumstances. Such links become apparent as a result of combining attentiveness, openness, resourcefulness, and imagination. A sense that there might be more to what’s locked in one’s gaze than what immediately springs to mind. Where, frankly, the trite expression ‘thinking outside-the-box’ is itself an ironic example of ‘thinking inside-the-box’.

Forging creative results from the junction of farsightedness and ingenuity is hard — to get from the ordinary to the extraordinary is a difficult, craggy path. Expertise and extensive knowledge is the metaphorical cosmic dust required in order to coalesce into the imaginatively original ideas sought.

Case in point is the technically grounded Edison, blessed with vision and critical-thinking competencies, experiencing a prolific string of inventive, life-changing eureka moments. Another example is Darwin, prepared to arrive at his long-marinating epiphany into the brave world of ‘natural selection’. Such incubation of ideas, venturing into uncharted waters, has proven immensely fruitful.

Thus, the ‘nurseries’ of thought fragments, coalescing into complex ideas, can provide insight into reality — and grist for future visionaries.

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