How the mind makes new ideas: Bending, breaking, blending

How does humanity arrive at great ideas? Simple: we take already great ideas and just arrive at even greater ideas.

David Eagleman: So what humans do that is special is we absorb all of these ideas, all these inputs, and we smoosh them up in various ways and come up with new things.

And so there are essentially three main ways that the brain does this, and we’ve summarized this as bending, breaking and blending.

So let’s start with bending. So bending is where you take something and you change it, you make it smaller, you make it bigger, you change something about it. When you look at statues across human culture you find that people bend the human form any which way, making it taller or skinnier or emphasizing certain portions over the other. They do that with all animal paintings and sculptures and so on.

You can bend lots of aspects of things. So the artist JR made a statue of the high jumper Mohammad Idris for the Olympics and he put that super huge and had him jumping over a building. And you have other sculptures that make extremely tiny little figurines.

And one of the arguments we make is that the exact same thing that’s happening in art, the same cognitive processes are happening in the sciences also.

So you see exactly this kind of thing happening all the time. Just as an example in the early days of driving in the 1920s headlight glare was a real problem.

So Edwin Land, the scientist, realized that he could solve this by using polarizing crystals. But those were very big at the time. So he figured out how to shrink these down and make a windshield out of all these little, polarized crystals.

It’s exactly the same sort of “aha” moment as the artists who’s making these tiny figurines. It’s the same kind of bend going on. And we see this all over in biology.

Just as one example the artificial heart since it was invented in the 1980s has been a mechanical pump, but these are very energy hungry and they get worn down. And so in 2004 a couple of physicians came up with a continuous flow heart where blood flows through and is oxygenated continuously. So if you have one of these hearts you don’t have a pulse at all. And Dick Cheney has one of these, and he doesn’t have a pulse.

And so this is a bend of what we find in nature. We get the idea of the heart and then we bend it to make it compatible with what we want.

And, of course, airplanes are a bend of what we witnessed birds doing and so on. So there are many ways that you can bend things and this is one of the great things that the brain does all the time.

So breaking is where you take something, some input that you received and you bust it into pieces. Maybe you leave pieces out, or something like that.

So just as an example the artist Cory Arcangel took the videogame Super Mario Brothers and he hacked into it and he removed everything except for the little clouds. And then he made an art installation where it was just the clouds, and he called it Super Mario Clouds.

What he was doing was taking part of it away, leaving part of it there.

That same kind of overt creativity that happens in the arts is exactly what happens in the scientific lab all the time where you take certain parts away. For example, in my field there’s a method that’s used now in neuroscience called Clarity where you take the brain—which you can’t see inside of—and you wash away all the fatty molecules so that you can see where the pathways originate and where they go.

And in that way you can essentially make part of the brain transparent. You can suddenly see the pathways. It’s the exact same idea. Just as another example the artist David Hockney takes the visual field and breaks it up into pieces. And the impressionist painter Seurat does pointilism, so there’s these sort of big dots and you’re seeing these dots—and you come up close and you see them. If you go far away it looks like a painting.

And this exact same sort of breaking is the innovation that underlies our whole digital universe because there’s pixilation of everything you see on a computer screen. It’s a bunch of individual squares that have different colors. And at the right distance you see me talking on a Big Think video. And so breaking is something that we do all of the time.

Fred Sanger was trying to figure out how to sequence long molecules of DNA and he realized that he could break these up into smaller pieces. And then you can analyze and collate the information.

And he actually ended up winning two Nobel prizes for this work that he did and it’s the basis of essentially everything we know about genomes at this point.

But it’s all the same cognitive operations that are happening that you see both in the art and in the sciences.

What happens in the arts is overt bending, breaking and blending. So you see all kinds of art projects where people are taking things and they’re bending them in size or texture or they’re breaking them. They’re breaking pieces off or they’re blending two ideas.

This is the basis of all of the art that we see, exactly the same mechanisms are happening in the scientific lab, it’s just that typically we can’t see them.

So when you pick up your cell phone it’s this little rectangle that is absolutely chock full of creativity, of really brilliant ideas that went into the making of that. But you can’t see it because it’s just a little enclosed thing.

But the interesting part is it’s exactly the same cognitive mechanisms, which is to say, absorbing the world: bending, breaking and blending it, and spitting out new versions of things.

One of the things that we love about our computers is that we can put information in there and then when we pull it out a year later it’s exactly the same. It’s exactly the same zeros and ones. The human brain doesn’t work that way. When you put stuff in it gets smooshed up with other things that have come in before and what comes out are new versions of things.

So blending is where you have two completely separate ideas and then these become blended in the brain and something new comes out.

So just as an example in ancient mythology we see this all throughout where you have, for example, a man and a lion and you get a sphinx, or you get—all over the world different combinations of lion and a goat you get a chimera. Exactly the same thing happens in the lab.

Just as one example scientists have long wanted to harvest spider silk, which is actually stronger than steel for its size. But you can’t get a bunch of spiders together or they’ll eat each other.

So what a geneticist did is he spliced out the gene that makes spider silk and put it in a goat, and made Freckles the spider-goat who secretes spider silk in her milk. She’s a real life chimera. And this idea of taking two separate things and blending them is something that humans do all the time. We take very different concepts and we put them together.

How does humanity arrive at great ideas? Well, the natural world is full of amazing ingenuity (thanks, evolution!), including the human mind. When humans perceive natural phenomena like a bird taking flight, we're able to "bend" what we see into an eventual airplane. Neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author David Eagleman explains how humans also "blend" and "break" things to arrive at new ideas. The examples Eagleman provides starkly illustrate the inventive quality of the human mind. Check out these ideas and more in David's latest book: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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