Where do ideas come from?


ideas (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I was watching this on Youtube, and I found myself saying “Yes, but…”. What Stephen Johnson says in there is all true. I like his idea of a “slow hunch” that takes several years or decades to develop. Stephen’s environmental approach looks at the places that provide the environment where ideas flourish, such as coffee shops which flourished in the 17th century and later. The Wikipedia article notes that

Though Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffeehouses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”, the public flocked to them.

Apparently Charles did not like the new ideas emanating from the coffee shops and thought that doing away with them would do away with the ideas. I’m not so sure – the discussion groups from the coffee shops would almost certainly have moved elsewhere.

Lloyd's Coffee House

Lloyd’s Coffee House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ideas certainly sprang from the coffee houses which mutated into or gave rise to the London Stock Exchange, Lloyd’s of London and some famous auction houses. I refer you to the Wikipedia article.

Stephen Johnson describes the environments that provide fertile ground for new ideas, and similar places have been invented and reinvented over the years. While Universities were, I believe, originally set up as places for the studying of religion, the concentration of bright people and the opportunities for discussion inevitably led to ideas which were not to the taste of the religious establishment.

Victoria University, Kelburn, Wellington, New ...

Victoria University, Kelburn, Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My “yes, but..” in relation to the Youtube article was not in relation to the matters Johnson discusses, which was the types of environments that favour new ideas, but how the ideas are formed in the human brain. Johnson talks about one person having “a piece of the puzzle” that completes a new idea, but I think that that is an oversimplification. I see it more like a huge floating jigsaw puzzle, with no edges and maybe many many puzzles. Each person gets millions of puzzle pieces and each person does his or her best to fit together as many pieces as possible and some of the pieces may be assembled incorrectly. I’m thinking of the “Intelligent Design” people when I write that.

a drawing of a 4 piece jigsaw puzzle

a drawing of a 4 piece jigsaw puzzle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An idea in that model is simply a realisation that that piece or pieces of the puzzle over here seem to fit with the piece or pieces over there. Any idea is based on innumerable prior ideas or realisations.

Ideas also seem to change over time. I think that I recall that when the idea that white light can be split into many colours was first put to me I accepted it with some reservations. Sort of “If you say so”. But today it seems obvious to me, though it can be that probes into the obvious turn up the un-obvious.

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making of The...

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where do ideas come from? I’m uncertain. I’m not sure that there aren’t several sources of new ideas, but one that I keep coming back to is that there might be some process in our brains of which we are not conscious that continually and somewhat dumbly searches the puzzle pieces and tries to fit them together. It probably has guidance rules that say that, metaphorically, knobs must fit into sockets, there should be no gaps or space between puzzle pieces.

I call the process dumb because it seems to favour picking close by pieces, and it seems to repeatedly try the same configurations that have failed previously. I say this because sometimes, looking at a fact a new way or introducing a concept from another field may result in a totally new solution to a problem.

Visual Example of the Eight Queens backtrack A...

Visual Example of the Eight Queens backtrack Algorithm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m aware that I’ve used the word “idea” in a number of senses above, but I hope that it doesn’t detract too much from the argument. I’m also aware that I’ve stretched the jigsaw analogy well beyond the bounds!

As a final comment, I think that people misunderstand the Eureka Moment. The moment occurs not when one solves the puzzle, but the moment that one realises that the puzzle is solved. For instance, when a mathematician works on a proof he may get stuck on a particular step. He may try several solutions, proceeding from the solution under test through several other steps in the proof before he discovers the solution which works. The Eureka Moment happens when he discovers that the solution he is trying is the correct one, not when he chooses the solution. A subtle but definite difference.


archimedes (Photo credit: Sputnik Beanburger III)

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