Good Ideas Have a Lot of Sex

Here’s a proposed answer to the question of where good ideas come from, presented in style, courtesy of the RSA. In an attempt to revolutionize how education is delivered, the RSA has been converting lectures from all disciplines into visually stunning stories. This one is presented by science writer Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open and Where Good Ideas Come From :

Have you ever facepalmed yourself after having figured out the seemingly obvious answer to a frustratingly mind-boggling problem? Like how to get American students to pinpoint the US on a map? (Answer: I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some  people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and…)

Steve Johnson proposes that moments of ingenuity or discovery are not actually moments at all. Instead, he says, they are slow and gradual processes that involve building on and meshing together old ideas to produce something never-before-seen. He calls it the Slow Hunch. Einstein’s theory of relativity actually did not happen overnight; Michelangelo spent four years painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling; Mozart clocked in at least 10,000 hours of practice before composing his best-known symphonies.

This view seems sound so far, especially for anyone in science who goes through the tedious experimental process that essentially builds on previous Good Ideas. Johnson’s argument, though, needs a lot more data to definitively say that a slower, progressive buildup of Good Ideas is how Great Ideas actually come about. Historians and social psychologists surely have their work cut out for them.

Why is this interesting? Well, imagine  the feeling of getting roundhouse kicked in the kidney. Now, imagine the completely opposite feeling. That’s more or less how scientists describe the feeling of seeing one of their hypotheses, their Slow hunches, verified. Or how an artist describes their source of inspiration when it fills them to the brim with creativity. Johnson’s point is that these seemingly breakthrough moments are actually mini-hunches coalescing and snowballing into a Good Idea.

And here’s the kicker: this process presumably is positively and directly correlated with how “connected” we all are.

Today, everyone and everything is unimaginably connected. Facebook, twitter, google… cell phones, skype, the internet. As links between people — and between people and information — increase, the intersections where information is shuffled exponentially increase. We can access nearly any bit of information thanks to Google in a few seconds; we can “stay connected” with nearly anyone thanks to Facebook. As the amount of possible intersections between us and information, us and other people, goes up, our access to ideas skyrockets. The probability of stumbling on someone else’s Good Hunch that compliments our Good Hunch and turns it into a Great Hunch balloons.

Good ideas, in other words, come from the collision of smaller hunches. These smaller hunches collide when we read a bit of information on the internet, or hear it from another person, or see it broadcasted on TV — indeed, this is where technology become an “engine of creativity.”

As Johnson points out, there is a “historic increase in connectivity… our ability to reach out and exchange ideas, to borrow hunches and combine them with our hunches.” To be fair, this is not a new idea — journalist Matt Ridley proposed this as the reason why humans triumphed over every other organism on earth. It is the mating of ideas — what Ridley calls “ideas having sex” — that breeds innovation. The intellectual offspring might be an original idea. (Whether or not it’s a good idea, however, is another story.)

The trend can be traced throughout history. The Greeks held Socratic seminars — philosophy was the product of sexy ideas. During the enlightenment, ideas had sex at coffee houses. Today, ideas are even more promiscuous and get down and dirty all around us — on the internet, in dorm rooms, through random texts, at socials, on TV. These methods of communicating ideas “…create a space where ideas [can] crash and swap and take new forms.” Indeed, we have access to more information and at higher speeds than any person born before us.

A healthy dose of skepticism, however, also demands that Johnson’s speculations become testable, data-driven claims with predictive power. For that, Ridley seems better equipped, which is probably why he beat Johnson to the one-two data punch. And evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins figured this out before Ridley and Johnson when he coined the term “meme” to describe a cultural unit of information — a catchy tune, a Great Idea, and so on.  Memes, like genes, can get together and conceive a novel idea. This is what Johnson simply has renamed a Slow Hunch.

Finally, the video unfolds as a sort of mindmap, nurturing the reader’s attention by visually depicting what the speaker is saying. As of now, there’s some indirect science to support the idea that paying “deeper” attention to what is being said can help boost our memory of its contents. In one study, scientists from Princeton had subjects memorize as much information as they could in 90 seconds about an alien race. They found data to suggest that simply changing the font of the words dramatically influenced how well subjects remembered the content. Information displayed in harder-to-read-fonts was better remembered.

Generally, the study demonstrates that small changes in what you’re reading have the potential to make significant improvements on memory recall. As the authors note,”superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes.” It would be interesting to see if this holds up for transforming lectures into pictures a la RSA; I have my fingers crossed.

So if you want to have a Great Idea, take a Good Idea and throw at it as many novel hunches as possible — let the idea have sex. One of its brainchildren just might be a Great Idea. Then, present this idea in anything but Comic Sans.

One response to “Good Ideas Have a Lot of Sex

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Good Ideas Have a Lot of Sex « Steve's Blog -- Topsy.com

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