Where Ideas Come From: a Neurological Perspective.
One of the things writers supposedly hate being asked is where do your ideas come from? But it’s not a question I mind at all, because the actual, sometimes-mysterious-but-not-really process behind it is quite fascinating. And sometimes when people do ask me, they find themselves caught up in a lengthy discourse on neuropsychology, the structure of the neocortex and the role of pattern-recognition in the creative process. So if you don’t want to get trapped for an hour in the bar at some future Con with no way to escape, now you know what not to ask me.
The reason writers act like they hate being asked this question is not infrequently because they themselves have no idea. Occasionally they’re aware of the role of ‘muscle memory’, by which we gradually accumulate sufficient experience in a particular skill or field of endeavour until it becomes almost instinctive (as can be observed in the finger movements of any passably-skilled guitarist), but usually that’s as deep as it goes. In reality, the question Where do your ideas come from? is fascinating because of where it leads you once you start trying to actually find out.
So: where do ideas come from? What actual mechanisms lie behind the process of ideation? What underlying physical processes inside my brain lead to a book like Survival Game, about to be published in paperback?
Well, at its broadest level, when we’re creative, what we’re really doing is putting familiar ideas together in a way that makes them seem more novel or interesting. But to understand how that actually works, you have to look at how the human brain itself works.
Picture a brain: it’s a wet grey lump somewhat larger than your clenched fist but small enough to fit in your head and enormously wrinkled. Much of what makes you, you is contained in a thick outer layer of cells called the neocortex. Sensory information travels into the brain via neural pathways connected to the tongue, nasal passages, eyes and so forth.
The brain constitutes a hierarchy of parts through which incoming information is filtered. The primary sensory organs are the lowest regions in this hierarchy, with the higher regions being those concerned with how the incoming information can be combined into recognisable stored patterns (a familiar face, a piece of music, and so forth). These higher regions, in turn, filter back out again through the motor functions, so that your eyes move to recognise a familiar face or your mouth sings the lyrics from a song.
All of this, of course, is a vast oversimplification. But it’s good enough for our purposes here.
Once the brain has collected all this information, it then attempts to make predictions regarding its environment. Will that tiger attack? Is that kid in the baggy coat going to shoplift anything? Will the man in the purple velour leisure suit and smelling of lemons attempt to engage me in conversation if I sit next to him on the bus?
These predictions are based on perceived patterns in the data our brains collect about the outside world - a process known as pattern recognition. This search for patterns provides a semblance of order to all this chaotic sensory input.
In other words, when we see something happen, and then another thing happens as a result of the first thing, we perceive a causal chain linking them and then attempt to use this sequence to make predictions about what might come next.
In that respect, we’re pattern-recognising geniuses. In fact, we’re almost too good at it: people can find patterns in the oddest of places, from a friendly face in a lump of rock to Jesus in a slice of toast. We’re so good at this kind of thing, writers of games, music and books sometimes deliberately insert clues and references and inexplicable passing mysteries into their work in the full and certain knowledge that some segment of their audience will then attempt to tie it all together into some dazzling whole, regardless of whether or not there’s any actual link whatsoever.
So how does all this fit into the act of creativity, of coming up with something the majority might agree is a good thing, an enjoyable piece of art?
Jeff Hawkins, creator of the Palm Pilot, wrote a fascinating book on neuroscience and intelligence called On Intelligence where he asks precisely this same question, and links it back to the human mind’s ability to make predictions of future behaviour based on past experience:
“We (…) believe we are being creative when our memory-prediction system operates at a higher level of abstraction, when it makes uncommon predictions, using uncommon analogies. For example, most people would agree that a mathematician who proves a difficult conjecture is being creative.
But let’s take a close look at what’s involved with her mental efforts. Our mathematician stares hard at an equation and says, “How am I going to tackle this problem?” If the answer isn’t readily obvious she may rearrange the equation. By writing it down in a different fashion, she can look at the same problem from a different perspective. She stares some more. Suddenly she sees a part of the equation that looks familiar. She thinks, “Oh, I recognize this. There’s a structure to this equation that is similar to the structure of another equation I worked on several years ago.” She then makes a prediction by analogy. “Maybe I can solve this new equation using the same techniques I used successfully on the old equation.” She is able to solve the problem by analogy to a previously learned problem. It is a creative act.”
- On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins
Hawkins goes on to make the point that finding new and novel ways to combine and compare ideas we’ve previously modelled in our brains is at the heart of creativity: “…highly creative works of art are appreciated because they violate our predictions. When you see a film that breaks the familiar mold of a character, story line, or cinematography (including special effects), you like it because it is not the same old same old. Paintings, music, poetry, novels—all creative artistic forms—strive to break convention and violate the expectations of an audience…the best works break some expected patterns while simultaneously teaching us new ones.”
This all ties back into muscle memory. Part of the process of learning a skill, whether it’s writing, music or skateboarding, is of making it an unconscious habit - on the order of a reflex. The requisite skills become ingrained in our muscle memory through repetition that builds up familiar patterns in our work. These patterns, in turn, generate more sophisticated patterns.
Here’s another quote, this time by Antonio Damasio, taken from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: “Outsourcing expertise to the unconscious space is what we do when we hone a skill so finely that we are no longer aware of the technical steps needed to be skillful.”
Cron herself goes on to add: “It’s through this process that story becomes intuitive for writers and that muscle memory is built.“
To put it a little more succinctly, the more you do it, the better you get at it - ‘it’ being recognising patterns, then finding new ways to combine them into newer, more novel end products.
In other words, the more you think creatively, and the more often you do it, the better your ideas will eventually be, all thanks to the recognition and then recombination of existing patterns on a typically unconscious and only very occasionally conscious level.
For instance, science fiction is sometimes characterised as asking the question what if?. What if the Roman Empire survived to the present day? What if there were Martians, and they wanted to invade us? What if someone could build a man out of spare parts?
In the case of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, the author was aware of the devastation visited upon the natives of Tasmania after they were first contacted by the British. That idea - of a smaller, weaker civilisation subsumed and then destroyed by a larger, more powerful and more technologically advanced one - combined with another idea, that of life on Mars. Percival Lovell had at that time only recently popularised the idea of life on Mars in a book called, appropriately enough, Mars, published in 1895. War of the Worlds, when it came out a few years later, neatly conflated the two ideas: what if what happened to the Tasmanians happened to us?
Now consider that already well-developed and sometimes highly complex ideas can also be combined to good effect: what is sometimes referred to as a ‘mash-up’ of familiar tropes.
Some examples: Charlie Stross was a fan of Len Deighton’s spy thrillers when he came up with the idea of the Laundry books. He was also, like most genre writers, well-versed in the work of HP Lovecraft. Those two ideas when combined together created something new and original. Similarly, the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline crams Eighties pop culture nostalgia into the plot of Willy Wonka.
As an approach to ideation, it is in some ways reminiscent of the Hollywood cliché of the high-concept pitch: it’s like Jaws locked in a haunted house, but in space! It’s a fairy-tale about a farm-boy who saves a princess, but in space! And it’s also how I came up with the idea for Survival Game and the book to which it’s a sequel: It’s the last living person on Earth, but there’s more than one and they’re all from different parallel post-apocalyptic universes! In other words, it’s a mash-up of the ‘last living person on Earth’ trope with the ‘traversing parallel realities’ trope - something to my knowledge no-one else had quite thought to do before in precisely that way.
Similarly, Survival Game mashes together the Eighties-era Cold War espionage thriller, parallel realities, and a bunch of last-people-on-Earth(s).
The human mind needs and craves novelty and the unexpected, and rejects that which is overly familiar (the “same old, same old”). I always ask myself: what can I do that’s just a little bit different, that nobody else has quite thought to do before? And I do so in the safe and certain knowledge that well over a decade of writing has improved my writing ‘muscle memory’ to the point that complex strings of association, and models of reality both fictional and actual, stored deep in my neocortex, will occasionally combine to produce something that just might be called “a good idea”.
And that is where ideas come from.
Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron.
On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins.
Survival Game is out tomorrow.
Check out the opening extract here.