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Ideas: What They Are & Where the Great Ones Come From

Here’s an easy quiz I stole from Dean Buonomano’s latest book Brain Bugs:

 Answer the first two questions below out loud, and then blurt out the first thing that pops into your mind in response to sentence 3:

1. What continent is Kenya in?

2. What are the two opposing colors in the game of Chess?

3. Name any animal

If you’re like 20% of people, you just blurted out “zebra.” Why? As Buonomano explains, zebras are intimately connected with Africa and black and white because knowledge is stored in an associative manner. This means that when you learned about zebras, you also learned about where they live and what color they are (e.g., Africa and black and white), which moreover caused your neurons associated with zebras to physically connect with your neurons associated with Africa and black and white.

Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb first developed a model to explain this. In his words:

When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.

Put simply, two neurons form synaptic connections when they are near each other and activate at the same time. In colloquial terms, “when cells fire together, they wire together.”

This general principle, that knowledge is associative, explains why you think about orange trees when you think of the fall, why you think about September 11th when you think about airplanes crashing into buildings, and why you think about water when you think about jet skiing. In each of these examples, one idea is activating an associated idea or ideas.

It also explains a lot of behavior. For example, I have written about Yale psychologist John Bargh who demonstrated that reading words associated with oldness (Florida, gray, grandmother) causes people to walk slower, and holding warm drinks causes people to assess others as friendly and trustworthy. Again, it is because our experiences with oldness correspond to slowness and our experiences with warmth correspond to affection that we do this.

As we grow up, our understanding of the world becomes less and less flexible as our neural connections become more and more rigid. By the time we enter adulthood, our neurons have literally made up their mind about how the world works: beaches are associated with the ocean, dark clouds with rain, killing an innocent person with evil, and so on. Although this helps us navigate the world, there is a negative consequence to having everything so nicely categorized.

The more we come to know the world, the more difficult it is to think outside of the box; it is easy to think about a concept or understand something in the way you learned it, but it is extraordinary difficult to do the opposite. However, this is exactly what all great thinkers did; they physically broke rock hard neural synapses, formed new ones, and understood the world better as a result. This is what makes an idea great – its’ ability to alter the most grounded neural connections.

How is this done?

I think there are two things necessary for a great idea. The first is a lot time, focus, and diligence. As Steve Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From suggests, it is only when small observations are “incubated” over long periods of time that great ideas flourish. There are many cases of this: Darwin spent decades assiduously observing and taking notes on plants and animals before thinking of natural selection, and Newton and Einstein spent their entire careers formulating their groundbreaking theories. Pick your famous scientific or intellectual breakthrough, and you’ll find the same story. The second is other people. Rarely are novel ideas thought up in isolation. This is why the English coffee house was central to the Enlightenment; it was a place people could go to exchange ideas to create new ones.

The point is that Plato and Descartes had it backwards. Ideas aren’t isolated entities of non-material fluff; they are pockets of interconnected neurons that form with and from associated ideas. An idea, then, is something that best represents a vast but related collection of concepts. When we exchange ideas, we weigh and test this collection. And every once in a while, someone comes along a breaks this web and forces us to rearrange our neurons. This is intellectual progress.

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