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11224.  Thu Nov 25, 2004 10:50 am Reply with quote

It is quite impossible to predict new ideas – the ideas that people are going to have in ten years' or ten minutes' time – and we are caught in a logical paradox the moment we try to do so. For to predict an idea is to have an idea, and if we have an idea it can no longer be the subject of prediction.


In The Mind’s Eye; Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Learning Difficulties by Thomas G West aka s:ITM

12374.  Sun Dec 19, 2004 1:12 pm Reply with quote

Not that I wish to criticise the great Medawar unduly, but this can be simplified a bit, I think, so that it does away with the confusing illusion of time. 'Prediction' is just confusing, because no one can really say what it means. Therefore, I think a better version should be:

It is quite impossible to think of a new idea 'out of the blue' without already having some idea of its nature. For without already having some familiarity with the shape of a particular idea, it would be impossible to recognise it as such when it arrives in your mind.

The analogy is recognising a stranger: you have no idea when you have met me, because you don't know what I look like. But to know what I look like, you must already have met me. Unless, of course, you have a photo of me, which is where the analogy sputters and dies!


In any case, when it comes to ideas, I prefer the bottom-up memetic explanation of their formation, simply because it works by the grand old method of evolution. Many memes ('monadic' parts of ideas/concepts/theories) are vying for space in your brain (from your perceptions of the outside world), and some are having more success than others thriving amongst those memes that already have a barnacle-like grip in your brain. Some manage to bond together, in a kind of mutually-assured symbiosis, and from their union comes another, slightly more complex meme which is better at surviving in your brain.

These memes have expression through thought and language, and eventually make it into print, and make up culture and science, where they are tested again against the real world. Creativity, therefore, becomes the emergent 'foam' on the top of this boiling sea of ideas that are constantly striving for fitness in your mind. You think you're controlling the output of your creativity? Nah, you're just reporting what's appearing and subliming it into the material world. We're just channels, us brains.

Just to labour a point - try thinking of nothing for a while. You can't do it. Froth, froth, froth... "ooh, I fancy a coffee..." froth, froth...

12380.  Sun Dec 19, 2004 6:27 pm Reply with quote

A key difference between evolution of species and evolution of ideas, though, is that it is possible for a train of thought which turns out to have gone up a cul-de-sac to reverse out and try a different direction, which is not the case in biological evolution.

12399.  Mon Dec 20, 2004 12:57 pm Reply with quote

It's a good point, but I think there may be a confusion between what happens from a person's point of view, and what happens from the meme's point of view.

Suppose you have two memes called A and B in your brain. They combine to form a new meme AB, and this new meme fights for its place to stay in your brain. If it doesn't 'fit' into your brain's meme landscape (let's say it contradicts some other well-established meme C that's been in your brain a while), AB will simply not persist because the new 'brain state' will not support all the new tenants at once. AB will be evicted.

But the memes A and B would still be there in your brain, ready to be combined with other memes that might turn up. 'Reversing out and trying a different direction' is what the person thinks they are doing when they are really abandoning a new meme combination and going back to the previously existing components of that meme.

From the point of view of the memes themselves, it's still a one-way journey which ends up with the memes either staying in the brain, and being used in other constructions, or else not fitting in and being abandoned.

In biological evolution, novel groupings of genes can similarly find themselves in bodies that cannot propagate them into the next generation (for example, genes that make their carrier infertile). They will find themselves 'going extinct' as well, but they may well appear again in the future somewhere else (and go extinct again), as that chance combination may repeat itself. This happens with memes too - otherwise unconnected people have the same idea.

I'm still thinking quite hard about whether this really does make sense. "From the meme's point of view" I think it does, but it's then very difficult to say what a person does when they accept or dismiss novel thoughts. The first rule of cognitive science is 'ignore what you think you think', which does make it quite tricky. Bear with me though!

12400.  Mon Dec 20, 2004 1:31 pm Reply with quote

Well I'd say you're on the right lines, but that what you have here is an analogy, not a law - and analogies only work until they stop working, if you see what I mean.

12402.  Mon Dec 20, 2004 3:01 pm Reply with quote

Well quite, but an analogy is nothing more than noticing that two things seem to work in the same way - share the same kind of dynamics - and it's therefore worth looking to see if they are driven by the same sorts of processes. Nature is lazy: if it can get away wthout having to reinvent something, it does.

There are so many theories of consciousness around at the moment, but I think memetics has a certain parsimoniousness because it's really just the same as evolutionary biology, and we know how powerful that is.

Also because it forces a level of humility on us humans, who still think "they all that". I expect that whatever theory comes out as 'the winner', it's still going to be far simpler than we'd be comfortable accepting. I like that. I also hope it's true, because I could really do with some more robot slave minds.

There's a superb quote of Picasso's, concerning the nature of creativity, and the fact that the really artistic bit comes about while you're figuring out what's going on and where the ideas in your brain are heading.
If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?

Creativity is, I think, actually out of one's conscious control.

12409.  Mon Dec 20, 2004 6:14 pm Reply with quote

Does the model offer an explanation for why some people are better at it than others?

12411.  Mon Dec 20, 2004 8:17 pm Reply with quote

Now that's a good question which will require some sleep.

Being creative relies upon quite a few ingredients. Hard work, sound practice, a sustainable exposure to novel memes, and a whole load of other mental and caffeine-based requirements to support a brain that is working hard. I think hard work - that is, trying out and evaluating all the combinations - is the key issue. Once you get good at doing that, your mental machinery will get very good at exploiting novel idea combinations.

There will no doubt be some brains that are born slightly better wired than others to do certain things, but I would think that those effects are easily overwhelmed by the practice factor. I don't believe in 'genius'. I think it's a dreamed-up romantic term like 'hero' which, although it definitely serves a social purpose, is not actually accurate. It's all down to hard work, concentration and receptivity. Some people can maintain it, some people have to go to *yawn* bed...

12416.  Tue Dec 21, 2004 10:41 am Reply with quote

I find that an appealing notion - it's an article of faith in this house that there's no such thing as talent, just work.

Maybe the critical skill to develop is simply to be able to recognise which ideas are the good ones.

12420.  Tue Dec 21, 2004 1:03 pm Reply with quote

I completely agree. I think talent is simply the umbrella word that we put over work, confidence, imagination, sensitivity, perception, etc. All those qualities affect each other all the time, and when they're all at their peak, you can do anything. Or so I've heard...

Really good ideas come along so infrequently, however. I expect most artists would say that the really big ones that make them famous are just lucky one-offs, but that they were able to take advantage of them.

There is something to be said for just following any old path, though. If you work any seam hard enough, you can get some gold out of it. And you'll get a lot of practice in while you're working (You'll also avoid becoming too bogged down by the constantly insecure artistic temperament that demands 'progress' and 'results'!) Then, when a lucky break presents itself, you'll know exactly what to do.

The journey is the thing. (And all that other specious guff you can find in the 'Little Book Of..." range!)

12676.  Sat Jan 01, 2005 6:04 pm Reply with quote

I'd argue, without great confidence, that creatiivity - the collision of two or more hitherto disparate ideas/experiences etc - is actviely hindered by critical appraisal, perceptual defence etc: I gather from Guy Claxton's 'Hare Brain Tortoise Mind' that this is confirmed by brain-imaging. Hindered too by hard , focussed work ( sorry Flash) for much the same reason. Creativity is most likely to occur in the unconscious; the task of the critical conscious being to decide if an idea is any good....

12678.  Sat Jan 01, 2005 8:26 pm Reply with quote

There was a programme on Radio 4 today about LSD, in which some of those who had tried to use the drug for creative purposes advanced the thesis that it only works for people who have done lots of preparatory spadework but then need to make a breakthrough of some kind. One might say the same about inspiration of all kinds.

Mostly Harmless
27893.  Sun Oct 23, 2005 3:35 am Reply with quote


Last edited by Mostly Harmless on Sun Jan 08, 2006 5:13 pm; edited 1 time in total

27895.  Sun Oct 23, 2005 4:36 am Reply with quote

I know that Flash has this admirable work ethic approach to creativity, but I can't hep wondering how hard John Lennon, for example, worked at listening to Radio Lux and absorbing American rock and R and B and all the other musical genres that influenced him; and why he created great music while Seamus O'Toffey who lived across the street and listened to the same records never wrote a note. Missed the Radio 4 programme - but this 'friend' tells me that whatever drugs may do to the creative process they can apparently greatly enhance the listening experience.

27907.  Sun Oct 23, 2005 6:12 am Reply with quote

It is an article of faith for me that almost anyone can do almost anything if they work hard enough at it. And, as it's a matter of faith, you can't require me to produce any evidence for it. However, it seems to me to be a manifestly benign belief to impart to one's children, whether it's true or not.

On the LSD issue, I have no view - I just report what was said on that radio progamme back in Jan.


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