Where do ideas come from?

Neil Gaiman, a best-selling fiction author, once was posed with the question, which is simple enough in essence, of where he got his magnificent ideas from. This question, which is recurrently asked to writers, prompted Mr Gaiman to write a blog on the subject. In the blog post he answered the question with the sincerest response he could conjure: ‘I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop.’

Creativity is still mysterious, giving the concept a kind of supernatural coating and, thus, the feeling that ideas come from an unprovable soul. The truth, however, is much closer to something else Mr Gaiman wrote in answer to the question regarding the gift of ideas; ‘I make them up. . .out of my head.’ Our heads, or, more accurately, our brains are compiled of incredible cells that store information, connect, change and grow. In this restless maze of brain cells, ideas are summoned, smashed together and represented to us; giving us innovation.

Creativity is often exclusively associated with novelty and newness, which, of course, to some degree is correct. Yet, when we identify newness with creativity, we’re thinking about the yield of the process rather than the process of creativity itself. The presentation of a novel idea is a lot less shiny and exclusive to everything else that came before than we probably assume. In fact, the main body of literature that seeks to illuminate the mechanics of creativity, describes the process as a repurposing of once old and redundant second-hand ideas to make something new. Sort of like kids’ junk-modelling.

Words, such as semantics and memory, aren’t stereotypically ones that adhere to a layperson’s conversation regarding creativity. The conversation usually speaks on genius and something that “just appears”. Something unquantifiable and unmeasurable. Neuroscientists, however, believe that ‘semantic memory’, something very quantifiable and measurable, is at the core of all our creative capacities.

‘Semantic memory’ referrers to a system that compiles concepts and facts about the world. These systems are made of neurons that can change, grow and connect with fellow comrades – forming what’s known as ‘semantic communities.’ Neuroscientists think it is their ability to connect and communicate that gives life to creativity. The once considered bland facts and concepts, then, are integral for the birthing of new and exciting ideas.

Facts and concepts on their own, existing as their own entities, are just that: isolated ideas that are only useful for navigating in scenarios that’ve come before. But bring them together to test for compatibility and something new might occur. That’s what the ‘association theory’ of creativity claims, anyway.

According to this theory, weekly related neurons that store conceptual knowledge can share their information, transforming remote concepts, that once had no compatibility, into novel and applicable concepts. Unrelated Semantic ‘communities,’ however, are often not geographically located near one another, making serendipitous connections, and thus creativity, unlikely – which is presumably why creativity is assumed to be so special and out of the ordinary. This does not ring true for all our brains though; some minds appear to lend themselves more favourably to the creative process than others do.

When individuals were asked to generate as many responses as possible to cue words, persons who would be considered ‘more creative’ generated more associations than those of ‘low creative’ ability. The people who could associate and generate more words showed greater ‘semantic hub’ activation. These people’s semantic neurones, it was inferred, were more flexible and broader in their search for associative elements to a cue word. Simulate this predicted activity within a constructed computational semantic hub and we see exactly this.

Figure 1: The connectivity and distances of neurons holding concepts and facts and semantic communities constructed via computational methods.  

The analysis of these constructed semantic networks showed that higher connectivity and shorter distances between semantic communities generated a greater number of remote associations. Creative individuals seem to have a semantic network that has access to a wider spread of information and, thus, a greater chance of relating never before associated concepts.

Out of the ashes of the old comes something new; those ashes had better form tightknit communities and connections though, or the process of creativity cannot even begin to form novelty.




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