Thursday, July 03, 2008


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND includes a column called "We're Only Human." Its June-July essay is headlined, "Got an Original Idea? Not Likely." The author refers to the fact that ideas spring from "complex patterns of collective behavior, many spontaneously organized and most entirely outside our understanding or awareness." That premise makes me think of jokes and urban legends. New ones do spring up from time to time, yet it's hardly ever possible to trace them back to their originators. These memes (to use another popular term for conceptualizing how ideas spread) just seem to pop into existence, with no way of knowing who first told the joke or disseminated the rumor. How does the collective mind generate ideas, and how can people strike a balance between too much connectivity -- resulting in a homogeneous social group whose individual members lack any originality -- and the peril of being too much of a "rogue explorer"? The author of this essay uses the metaphor of "foraging" for ideas in the social environment. He wants us to think of ideas as "really just abstract resources, food for the brain." Maybe the Jungian collective unconscious really does exist.

One interesting result of research into the hunter-gatherer model of generating ideas is that huge, global networks do best in conceiving solutions to easy problems. But for trickier problems, small, local networks function better. The more complex the problem, the greater advantage a small network has.

The author, Wray Herbert, has a blog called "We're Only Human," where he muses on these and many other psychology-related topics:

No comments:

Post a Comment