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Creativity is a random event

July 21, 2011

We live in a world of unsurpassed innovation, brought about by the creativity of a relatively small part of the population. So as our future, for better or worse, will certainly depend on it, perhaps we should ask exactly what creativity is.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

For the sake of argument, let’s define it as the introduction of a concept that previously did not exist. But oddly enough, if you ask a certified creator where his idea came from, you get a lot of twaddle about the best time being 3 in the morning or when taking a shower, but nothing of the slightest use to an aspiring inventor. This suggests that creativity is in fact not the result of a step-by-step logical deduction, but is a random event. And if random and therefore unpredictable, it looks very much like a mistake. How might that occur?

The architecture of the brain, and particularly the growth process by which specialized neurons find their way to their designated location and set up business there, is so incredibly complex that mistakes can and do occur. And a mistake is, by definition, a random event. And a thought following traditional lines, based on established thinking, can become slightly twisted by a misplaced neuron, and presto! It becomes a previously unimagined thought, which, lodging in prepared ground, may grow into history. Thoughts don’t always follow the same path, so the same lesion will not necessarily produce a stream of usable random events, but you might expect a higher frequency of originality than in a normal brain.

If this interpretation is correct, we should expect to find that well-known innovators act abnormally in other ways than producing new ideas, and this turns out to be the case. Scanning the biographies of a hundred celebrated innovators, including Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon, Samuel Johnson, Vincent van Gogh, Nijinsky, Niels Bohr and so on, we find that in almost every case there was a history of manic behavior: talking a blue streak, periods of intense originality followed by phases of deep depression, disregard of conventions and, in some cases, delusions. Obviously, all these people were bipolar to a greater or lesser degree, though still able to function among normal people. Indeed, one might make the case, though I will refrain from doing it here, that all well-known people are or were bipolar.

Contrary to rational expectation, there is no reason to believe that biological mistakes are invariably disabling. Errors in translating genetic instructions into proteins have led, via natural selection, to get you where you are today, and the success of HIV and common cold viruses in escaping every attempt to eliminate them is due to their sloppy reproductive habits, which make them expert shape-shifters.

I don’t want to push this thing too far, but it seems to me that we must look to the bipolar community to lead the way out of the economic crater in which we presently find ourselves.

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