Friday, May 4, 2012

On ideas, originality and creativity

Have you noticed how often there's a proclamation or a new, fresh, original or creative idea or concept and when you go to find out all about it you’re disappointed to see it is either a rehashing of old ideas in a new format or a blending together of themes already well known but the blend just happens to be a little different?

By this time in my life, after hearing the terms new, fresh, original and creative being thrown about for nearly every newly popular book or fad out there I've come to expect to be disappointed. In fact, experimental science is about the only thing I find worth getting excited about after hearing those words. Today's example of exciting news was "Eye microchip gives sight to blind".

Now that is as new, fresh, original and creative as we get. Which is pretty good as far as I'm concerned, even if the discoveries were based on years of research, bandied ideas from multiple scientists and thinkers and a collective effort on the part of the IT industry to come up with the chips in the first place. As you can see, the originality is all in the application and the ability to connect the dots.

For a while I pondered why there weren't any truly new ideas about, ones that are completely disconnected from anything that has come before. A few years back I came to the conclusion that we don't have new ideas, just blending of old ones in new ways. Sometimes in incredibly outstanding ways and sometimes in incredibly idiotic ways.

Many I conveyed this thought to didn’t accept this idea of mine as most like to think they can come up with new ideas, particularly in the age of copyright. But I think the arguments just came down to the definition of a new idea. They thought that if no one had done it just like they had then it was a new idea. I thought that if you’d used multiple old ideas and concepts to create your new idea then it wasn’t really new, just a new or different blend (one others have possibly had too).

Instead of new ideas, completely disconnected new ideas, what we have is like an endless building process. Over the course of our existence as a species, humanity has gathered data on the planet, ourselves, our fellow inhabitants of the planet and the universe. It is even possible that the data collection may have even started before we could be labelled truly Homo sapiens. The amount of information we have collected is beyond extraordinary. To the point were it is now absolutely impossible for one single human to hold and remember all the information at once, let alone access it all in their lifetime. We have truly amassed a sea of data.

So what a person holds in their mind is the knowledge passed down to them (sometimes correct and sometimes erroneous) and the information they've searched out for themselves. They do not and cannot hold information in their minds that they've never encountered before in any way, shape or form. Not even a hint. Otherwise we'd be psychic of a sort. Or fore-thinkers. I really don't know the category or extra-human you'd like to class such a type of human as so suffice it to say we'd be other than bog-standard Homo sapiens at that point.

Instead of trying to come up with information we've never encountered before we in fact have a better solution for data gathering and application than any encountered in the animal kingdom, although many animals will have a similar ability to part of ours. We have two things. We have synapses that fire scattered and uncontrolled impulses along with controlled ones. And we have the ability to record our thoughts, writing, crafts and art being the first forms of this recording.

Our synapses are constantly firing, zapping each other over and over or disregarding each other to fire at others instead. The weaving patterns of emphasis and disregard create memories and forgetfulness. If particular synapses don't fire then they become dormant, as you read in that article about lost coloured dreams suddenly returning after years of darkness. The unused are sometimes overwritten for use by another skill you find more important. So you forget one thing and remember another (thus you can't remember your old maths solutions but can remember how to go through the stages of cooking a BBQ). The used connections become stronger and more permanent. But even in their use they change, much the same as an over-trodden path in the woods does through the years. So you memories change over time, and truth is lost almost immediately (don’t go hunting for absolute truth – it will drive you mad.)

With all the firing, misfiring, ignoring and whatnot come your memories, movements, sensations, thoughts and consciousness. But there is also something else happening. There is a lot of "static" going on, particularly in the misfiring, that can link thoughts, memories, movements and sensations together to change your conscious awareness of any particular thing. And this static and misfiring happen all the time. A simple test is the old tongue twister. After a very short time you simply can't say what you wanted to say and start saying complete gobbledegook.

Maybe even gobbledegook, a new way of iterating sounds, could be used as words if given a meaning. And those words built into a language. People do this all the time too, for example: "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'm anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation." – Blackadder.

Your brain just keeps making connections over and over, through misfiring and static, mistakes or intentions, discoveries and new information gathered. And anything newly added to your memories becomes fodder for another odd blending of ideas that comes from your brain doing something that seems quite impractical from the outset but is in fact one of the most practical and magnificent things about the brain at all.

The other thing that humans do, that which no other in the animal kingdom does, is record what knowledge we've gathered. We don't just pass on our discoveries through "monkey see, monkey do" anymore, we write it down and store it for anyone (mostly) to see and use. And we've been doing this for thousands of years. There is too much to handle for any single person. Ever. But that doesn't mean any particular person couldn't go a research any particular subject, blend it with whatever else they know and apply it in a new way. They could and do.

The upshot of all this is that humans are constantly coming up with combinations of ideas and developments that astound us. No single human could think of them all so most are amazed when anyone comes up with one, particularly so when that person comes up with one that benefits so many and seems so simple an idea but is so complicated and requiring extreme skill to develop. 

Humanity doesn't come up with new, fresh or original ideas. It never has. The advertising that we do is false and the self-congratulations we give ourselves are attributed to the wrong skill. Humanity instead has this gorgeous mind that constantly blends and mixes data in creative ways to come up with solutions to problems and answers to questions through experimentation. It is our problem solving skills and our ability to actively search for answers that should be acknowledged. That and our ability to write and communicate.

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