Where do ideas come from?

ideas
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
archimedes (Photo credit: Sputnik Beanburger III)

There’s a Song in my Head.

Delicate (album)
Delicate (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(“There’s a song in my head” by Martha and the Muffins 1985 – NOT my kind of music by the way.)

 

The way the brain works fascinates me. It seems to favour the most unexpected linkages between memories. What brought this to mind was the fact that when I do some daily activity I often find myself humming a particular tune which my brain somehow for some reason links to that task. Now, sometimes it is easy to remember why there is a connection, but other times, I can think of no idea why that particular tune relates to that task.

 

Cassatt Mary The Cup of Tea 1880
Cassatt Mary The Cup of Tea 1880 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, it is probably true that at some time in the past there was an event, or even events which have caused that linkage to be formed. It may be that the linkage was indirect, through some other occurrence, but in any case the cause of the linkage has been long forgotten.

 

Evidently linkages can outlive the events that caused them. It may be that some traumatic event caused the linkage, and I have suppressed it. I think that this is unlikely, since it happens too often, and I don’t have that much trauma in my life, I believe!

 

It may be that my brain favours musical themes as mnemonics. Songs, poetry and repetition (chanting) are often used in schools to help student memorise things. How many days are there in June? And how many of you started mentally reciting that rhyme – “30 days hath September…”?

 

Knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in eac...
Knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in each month of the Gregorian Calendar. Each projecting knuckle represents a 31-day month. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I make a cup of tea and the tune springs to mind, what is my brain trying to do? (He said, anthropomorphically). Is it trying to remind me of something important? If so, it is likely that the thing that it considers important is important no longer, so my response, when it occurs to me, is one of puzzlement.

 

There’s another category of “songs in your head” and that is the “mind worm”. I can think of several. There’s the tinkly accompaniment to Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know”, There’s the Disney “Small World” theme, which may be merely more pervasive and not a true mind worm. Just recently there’s been the rail safety commercial “Dumb ways to die”. By the way, don’t click on the links unless you want the songs in your brain. Too late!

 

The hidden auditorium of my skull
The hidden auditorium of my skull (Photo credit: id-iom)

I can’t think of a good reason for musical mind worms. Maybe, as an offshoot of the remembering process the brain is so susceptible to simple musical phrases that it picks up these tunes because they are simple and memorable and this is the sort of thing that the brain finds easy to recall as well as remember, and each recollection reinforces the memory in a self maintaining endless cycle.

English: Animated Atkinson cycle.
English: Animated Atkinson cycle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Focaccia with bacon and tomato

I have previously cooked Focaccia and blogged about it. That was a pretty simple bread recipe and I added nothing to it, so I decided to have another go and add a few frills.

The original recipe uses Rosemary and Parmesan cheese and I added neither of these to my first try at the recipe, purely because both were in short supply. This time I decided to forgo the Rosemary as once again there was none to hand. However there was bacon! Also, I thought that some tomato would brighten it up a little. So I had a recipe.

The first rising was done in the usual way, in a warm spot. For the second rising, the recipe says to put the bread into a cold oven with a dish of hot water. I decided instead to put the bread into the grill which sits above our oven, with the oven on and the actual grill off. This worked splendidly.

After the second rising I added chopped bacon and chopped tomato and dusted it all with ground parmesan. If it looks a bit “rustic”, some visitors arrived as I cooking so I was short of time, but I reckon it looks pretty good anyway!

IMG_20130408_161255
Focaccia with bacon and tomato
IMG_20130408_161301
Focaccia with bacon and tomato

By the way, it tasted good too!