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A Neuroscientist and a Composer on How the Brain Generates New Ideas

Arts & Culture Creativity
A Neuroscientist and a Composer on How the Brain Generates New Ideas

David Eagleman is a world-renowned neuroscientist, an adjunct professor at Stanford University, and the writer and host of the Emmy-nominated PBS television series The Brain. Anthony Brandt is an award-winning composer and professor at Rice University who has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and more. The two recently joined science historian and bestselling author Steven Johnson to discuss the three ways that the brain gets creative, plus more surprising insights from their new book, The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.

Steven: I’m so fascinated by the capacity of the human brain to build these [what-if] scenarios or simulations. It’s one of those things we do so well that we don’t ever think about how complicated it is. Can you talk a little more about what that really means?

David: This is probably the thing that makes our species really special—a genetic tweak leading to the expansion of the human brain. We don’t know why it happened, but it allowed this small species in Africa to take over the entire planet. As part of the expansion of the cortex, which is the wrinkly bit on the outside, we are able to generate these what-if scenarios, imagine things that haven’t yet happened.

And the key job of intelligent brains is to do this. In fact, we spend very little time living in the here and now—we spend most of our time thinking of possibilities. That tweak is what allowed us to massively succeed as a species.

Steven: And this was revealed in those studies in the 90’s with what they started calling the “default network,” right? When you looked at brain scans of people who were in a resting state and not focusing on a task, you saw all this activity. And it turned out they were kind of daydreaming, thinking “Well, what if I did this, what if this happened, what if I had taken this job,” or whatever.

David: Yeah, the brain spends some amount of energy monitoring the outside world for new information, but the rest of the brain’s activity is chewing on the inputs that it already had, and building this internal model of things that are going on out there and what could happen.

Anthony: What’s so great about language is that we can talk about what’s happening in the present, but what’s equally powerful about human language, unlike any other way animals communicate, is that we can share what-if scenarios with each other, talking about what might have been or what could be. It’s so ordinary that we don’t think twice about it, but it’s the difference between us and everybody else in the animal world.

Steven: I’ve always thought it was interesting that there’s an evolutionary argument about the importance of storytelling. In all cultures, people tell stories, but by definition, stories are lies. They’re made up. And yet people are fascinated. Why would the brain be so interested in things that aren’t true? It seems weird, but if you think about it in terms of that ability to build what-if scenarios, which are themselves kinds of fiction, then suddenly storytelling has a different kind of impact.


David: Exactly. Truth is not the metric that the brain cares about. It cares about possibility. And then it figures out ways to say, “Well, could I make this true?” Including very basic things, like “What motor movement would I have to do to be holding my teacup in my hand?” Then I can make that true later.

Steven: [Speaking of] possibilities, so much of creativity is generating new possibilities—many of which will be terrible. They will ultimately prove futile or worthless or disastrous failures, but that ability to generate lots of different options is the key to the creative mind at work. And in the book, you guys have a really nice way of framing three mechanisms for generating new possibilities: bending, breaking, and blending.

Anthony: Bending is like a theme in variations. You take some source, and you create a new version of it that introduces novelty in some way—you’re twisting it out of shape, you’re transforming it. It’s what a jazz pianist does with a jazz standard every night that they perform. You’re holding on to the archetype, but you’re reproducing it in a new way.

David: One of the examples that we used is about bending things found in nature. You look at the way that a bird flies, and you say, “Okay, I want to achieve that, but I don’t want to do a flapped-wing aircraft.” So we build a fixed-wing aircraft. Or with the human heart—artificial hearts have gone from mechanical pumps to continuous flow devices where there’s no more pulse involved. Instead, it just oxygenates the blood that passes through. These are all bends on nature.

The second [creative mechanism] is breaking. Breaking is where you take something and you bust it up to see the parts of it in a new way.

Anthony: Like for instance, cell phones. Originally, there was one tower broadcasting over a large metropolitan area [with] only a limited number of frequencies. The problem is that not many people can make calls at the same time, and you were likely to get a busy signal. And then engineers at Bell Labs said, “Wait a second, what if we broke up that continuous area into smaller cells, and put a tower in each cell?” That’s where the word “cell phone” comes from. Once they devised a way to move from one cell to another [without] dropping your call, mobile communication was born.

Steven: And then blending…

Anthony: Blending is the marrying of separate things. Looking across human culture, you see a plethora of mythological creatures created from humans blending with animals—whether it’s centaurs, minotaurs, or mermaids. It’s something that human brains are so eager to do.

“Truth is not the metric that the brain cares about. It cares about possibility.”

Steven: Another way of thinking about blending that I’ve written about is what I call “porting” or “transposing,” where you have a tool or an innovation that’s designed in one field, and then you say, “Okay, let’s take this thing that works for this purpose, and try to imagine what it would be like in this new context.”

Like Apple coming up with the Apple Store. They were trying to do something different, so they went and studied high-end hotels. They were like, “What is it about a 5-star hotel that people love?” And they were like, “Oh, it’s the concierge. People love going up to a great concierge [who will] solve all their problems. What would a high-end concierge be like in a consumer electronic store?” And that became the Genius Bar. So by bringing that in and blending it into that new context, you get something that’s radically new.

When someone’s sitting down trying to figure out a new strategy, or trying to solve a problem in a creative way, is it worthwhile to think of [bending, breaking, and blending] distinctly? Do you say, “Okay, could I blend this, could I break this?” In terms of how people would approach a problem, how do you apply these ideas?

Anthony: So, most of that is happening in the unconscious, and we are not aware of it. But let’s say you aren’t used to tackling creative problems—it helps to think about these very consciously.

Step one is to realize that whatever new thing you’re going to come up with is going to be built out of the raw materials of the world around you. You’re not trying to just pull something out of the air—you’re trying to start with something known, and pull away from it.

Pretty much any creative act is going to be a mixture of these three things, but you could certainly ask yourself, “What if I took this apart? What would the pieces give me? Could the archetype be stretched or pulled or switched up in some way? [Could] I mush this together with something else to give us some new capacity?” I mean, the iPhone is basically mushing up all sorts of things, like music players, video, and internet, all into a phone. So the earlier you are in the process, the more conscious it’s going to be, and eventually your unconscious will do most of the work.


Steven: That’s great. You know, that reminds me of my other favorite creativity story—the story about Brian Eno, and his strategy as a producer with bands like U2 or Coldplay that are stuck in a [creative] rut. When they start recording a new record, he has them play each other’s instruments for a while. So he’s like, “Bono, you’re the drummer. The Edge, you’re the bassist.”

And they sound terrible. Bono’s not a very good drummer. But they sound different, and there’s some fragment of a new sound that they get from that. It’s a little bit of risk tolerance thing, being willing to make bad, noisy sounds in order to create new possibilities.

David: There’s an interesting analogy between bands, companies, and innovators about how closely you [should] stick to something that’s working. There are so many companies that we all know, whether it’s Blockbuster or Blackberry, who are like, “We’ve got a working idea, and we’re going to stick with it.” And that didn’t end up working. It turns out that one of the most important things is to find ways to switch it up and try different things.

When you look at bands like The Beatles, they put out something really different and new [with] each album. The thing about Beethoven is that he wasn’t trying to be Beethoven—he was trying to not be Beethoven, switching it up every time.

Anthony: Yeah, he wanted to surprise himself every time he composed. It’s only when we look back and see his whole life’s work that we say, “Well, that’s Beethoven.” But as it’s happening, he’s always trying not to be Beethoven. It’s the same with The Beatles. They’re trying to be something else.

Steven: I remember seeing the indie punk band Dinosaur Jr. play a show a while back. They said when they first started playing as teenagers, they just wanted to sound like Black Sabbath. So they tried to sound like Black Sabbath, and they’re like, “We kept failing, but in failing, we started to sound like ourselves.” So you set out for this target, and then because you’re not Black Sabbath, you end up turning into this other thing that actually ends up being great.

Can you tell me a little bit more about this idea of scouting to different distances?

David: One of the important things for creative people to do is to proliferate lots of options. We always imagine that our first idea about how to do something is a pretty good idea, but it’s usually not, and usually requires digging deeper. So there’s this emphasis on proliferating ideas, but also proliferating ideas at different distances from community standards. Why? Because you never know where the sweet spot is. You can’t know what’s going to stick, in terms of it working or sticking with the society around you.

“We fly out way, way far just to move one inch. And yet that one inch is a big leap.”

The important part is to do some things that are close to community standards, and some things that are so novel that they’re completely wacky. That’s how you find out what sticks. When you look at interesting companies or creators of all types, they all have the same story, where they did some things that were very close to home, and some things that were really quite wacky, often so much so that it didn’t stick. But they found something successful in the middle.

Steven: And that’s a deliberate practice, right? You’re thinking, “Alright, I’ve spent too much time in the last three weeks scouting distant, implausible ideas. I need to get back closer to the hive.” That’s the way you imagine it?

Anthony: There’s a beautiful quote of Phillip Justin that says, “We fly out way, way far just to move one inch. And yet that one inch is a big leap.” We have this mythology that the most creative people are always on the wacky end [of things]. But if you’re only on the wacky end, you’re probably not going to have the competencies to build something that works. When you look closer, the truth is they’re covering this entire spectrum, and sometimes they’re just tweaking what’s around them or what they’ve already done. Other times, like David said, they’re flying into more unknown territory and covering every stage in between.

Steven: Alright, last question. I love this story so much—why are humans not like sea squirts?

Anthony: David [once explained to me] that the first function of the brain is for guided motion through the environment. And in fact, there is a sea squirt that has a brain and uses that brain to search for a nesting place. It spends a good part of its life finding the optimal place to root itself down, and when it finds it, it cements itself in place—and then eats its own brain. It doesn’t need it anymore. We found nature’s greatest couch potato!

Of course, human beings will never want to be like that. We never say there’s a finish line, we never say “That’s enough.” We have a constant thirst for novelty that’s just unquenchable.

David: Whether it’s haircuts, or fashion, or cars, we as a society constantly want the next thing. We’re never satisfied to say, “Alright, we’ve reached the endpoint. This is how it’s going to be. We’re done.” That’s what characterizes our society—this constant leaning into the future.

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