Hits and misses: How neuroscience can boost your creativity
Some say that great ideas come out of thin air. Neuroscientist David Eagleman posits that perhaps all great ideas are simply built upon old ideas, because thats what fuels the creative brain.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw.
Beyond his 100+ academic publications, he has published many popular books. His bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the neuroscience "under the hood" of the conscious mind: all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 28 languages and turned into two operas. Why the Net Matters examines what the advent of the internet means on the timescale of civilizations. The award-winning Wednesday is Indigo Blue explores the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which the senses are blended.
Eagleman is a TED speaker, a Guggenheim Fellow, a winner of the McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, a Next Generation Texas Fellow, Vice-Chair on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience & Behaviour, a research fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Mind Science Foundation, and a board member of The Long Now Foundation. He has served as an academic editor for several scientific journals. He was named Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, and was featured as one of the Brightest Idea Guys by Italy's Style magazine. He is founder of the company BrainCheck and the cofounder of the company NeoSensory. He was the scientific advisor for the television drama Perception, and has been profiled on the Colbert Report, NOVA Science Now, the New Yorker, CNN's Next List, and many other venues. He appears regularly on radio and television to discuss literature and science.
David Eagleman: The interesting part about how the brain works is that it loves novelty. And so if you present something over and over—the same thing—to the brain it quickly starts showing a smaller response. This is called repetition suppression.
In other words the brain really cares the first time, then cares a little less the second time. By the third and fourth and fifth time the brain cares a lot less.
So what this means is that we’re always leaning into the future. We care about novelty.
But the interesting part is we don’t want too much novelty, because that’s disorienting. So you might want to go to Burning Man for five days, but you don’t want to live there all year.
And so we’re always caught in this ground between familiarity and novelty. And this is where creativity lives, because brains are looking for this balance and you can see this in lots of ways.
Just as an example take skeuomorphs. So skeuomorphs are these digital objects that have a relationship to a physical object. So when you’re saving something on your computer you press the little floppy disk, which we haven’t used for a couple of decades now. Or you make a phone call by pressing a handset, which is the old type of handset that kids nowadays don’t even know what that is! Or you send an email by pressing an enveloped letter, or you throw away your zeros and ones in a trash can, and so on.
So these are all illustrations of the way that we like to have one hand on the past. When we make new leaps we don’t want them to be completely unfamiliar.
Just as an example when the iPad came out with digital books, it was on a wooden bookshelf and they were books that sat on this wooden bookshelf.
So the point is that we’re always keeping one hand on the past and then one hand on the future, and that’s where we are comfortable with innovation.
When it comes to repetition suppression you can measure this in the brain. You just show something to the brain and you see a big response. And then you show it again and you see less of a response. And then again you see less of a response, and so on. By about the twelfth presentation you’re getting very little response because the brain just doesn’t care. So we’re always leaning into the future because we’re always looking for the next thing.
What’s interesting: when companies put out their new and improved product it has to have some relationship to the old one. I mean if a cell phone company decided to put out a triangular cell phone or something weird like that it wouldn’t necessarily catch on.
We want things that look pretty much like the old, but that have novelty to them.
Now the interesting thing is that when it comes to creation it’s impossible to know exactly how far to travel from community standards. So if you stick too close you’ll get passed by. If you go too far no one is going to follow you there.
And there are so many examples historically of this sort of thing happening.
So what creators actually, what good creators do is: they cover the spectrum. This is as true of individuals as it is for companies. They cover the spectrum where they’re doing some things that are sort of nearby and some things that are wackier and wackier, and this is how they feel out the border of the possible. This is how they figure out what’s going to stick with their society.
Because the thing about any sort of creative act is that you never know what’s going to stick, what will actually make a difference in your society. What’s very clear is that we are vessels of our own space and time. So the particular things we create have to do with what we have absorbed.
So if you compare nineteenth century Japanese music to nineteenth century French music to nineteenth century Kenyan music and so on, you’ll see these are extremely different, but it’s not that a composer over here couldn’t have done what composer over here was doing, it’s simply that it wouldn’t have stuck in their culture. It would have been strange, and wouldn’t make sense. Why? Because what we’re doing is building on the foundations of what has come before us.
The interesting part is that all ideas have a genealogy.
So what it seems so often is that a great idea comes out of the blue. An example of that is the iPhone: When Steve Jobs announced that in 2006, one reporter called it the “Jesus phone”. It seemed so revolutionary.
But, in fact, it has a very clear genealogy that you can trace. In 1993 IBM introduced the Simon which was a touch screen cell phone. Now it was about this big. It was a giant thing but it had a little touch screen. It was the same idea over two decades earlier.
And so each thing leads to the next in a progression—which is not to say there aren’t big novel leaps forward, these happen all the time—But what it is, it’s absorbing things from our society and bashing them together in new ways. And this is actually the basis of all creativity.
"All ideas have a genealogy," says David Eagleman. A writer, neuroscientist, and adjunct professor at Stanford University, he's definitely clued in to what makes ideas click. He posits that the brain craves something new so much that if you give someone the same thing over and over that after a certain amount of time you'll begin to see diminished returns in excitement. But sometimes "new" isn't necessarily new at all. He points out that although the iPhone is a revolutionary product it bears heavy similarity to an invention from IBM... from two decades ago. New ideas tend to be built upon similar ones, David Eagleman says, because "what we’re doing is building on the foundations of what has come before us." David's new book is The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
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Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
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A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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