An Original, Unoriginal Thought

I don’t think human beings are capable of original thought.

In essence, the brain is a pattern machine. Thoughts and ideas are stored in neurons in the cerebral cortex as a nest of patterns, patterns established on physical limitations (the body) and on the environment. Emotion, circumstance, and social interaction help dictate the patterns the brain understands and values—and only that follows.

I’m not meaning to say we don’t think. (Or, at least I think we think.) What we call thought is (I think) our brains’ attempt to pattern-match our lifetimes’ worth of experiences onto whatever problem, circumstance, or question confronts us. Racking our own brains, we turn to research and randomness.

By way of example, recall Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scene where primates discovered tool use by bludgeoning skulls with a loose femur. The act of banging was behavioral, its proximity to skulls coincidental, and thus its use random. Skulls, the primates knew, once belonged to live animals, and thus they concluded: the femur could be used against other primates. A novel idea, translated from random happenstance.

Similarly, the major leaps of man are random acts of pattern discovery: patterns observed, learned, and translated into other situations. In this sense, original thought is nothing more than discovery and translational application.

This is also not to say humans are incapable of complex thought, quantum leaps, or extraordinary thinking—I’m only suggesting that those leaps and complexities are based on a systems that we know or that we happened upon: our imaginations are limited to our experiences and the patterns we innately understand on circumstance of being human.

Consciousness is our gift. Pure creation is not. (Insert your preferred dogmatic implications here.)

Which, if I’m right, is rather frustrating… if I’m right, I never really came up with this idea—it just happened upon me.

9 comments
john sartoris
john sartoris

But Palestrina, Mozart and Schoenberg didn't land up in asylums despite creating original, pure music!

Another point about the original post. Thoughts and ideas are not really stored in the neurons in the brain at all. This is because thoughts and ideas are not the sort of things that can be stored in spatial locations at all.

What is stored in the neurons is a physical record of the thoughts and ideas. Those same thoughts and ideas can also be recorded in other ways and stored in other media. For example, the thought that is Pythagoras's Theorem is recorded in printed words and stored in the pages of High School math textbooks. It is also recorded in the written words of the students and stored in their notebooks. Again, it is recorded and stored in other ways in computers and on dvds.

But, in all these cases, it is not the thought itself that is stored in the textbooks or the students' notebooks or the computers or the dvds. In each case it is a physical record of the thought that is stored in those places.

The same goes for the brain. Physical records of the thought that is Pythagoras's Theorem may be said to be stored in the neurons of millions of human brains. But the thought itself is not stored there because thoughts are not the sort of thing that can be stored in physical space (or anywhere else, for that matter).

John Champagne
John Champagne

Nassim's point might be more similar to yours than you think. He is riffing on idea, not coming up with a rigorous theory, so it is hard to tell. I Think he phrased it best when he borrowed the line "You make your own luck." He did two podcasts on Econtalk that are good and talks about how you set yourself up for serendipitous events.

The Dreyfus/Heidegger connection has more to do with phrasing the question. What would the mental phenomena of having a pure, original thought be? Presumably you aren't relying on the frameworks that anyone else provided in any way; Heidegger would probably be concerned that this is such a specific case as to be uninteresting. I think that's what you meant when you implied by conceding that we do having interesting and extraordinary thoughts all the time. Engaging in this sort of "pure, original" is the sort of thing that lands people in asylums and rightfully so.

john sartoris
john sartoris

Are you saying that, for example, Palestrina's motets, Mozart's string quartets and Schoenberg's atonal quartets were not original, pure creations?

How could this be when there had never been anything like them before that could be experiences "of what we know or that we happened upon" that could be the basis of their creations?

And if music can include original, pure creations why not mathematics, physics and human thought in general?

Michael Gruen
Michael Gruen

John-- Nassim is much more forgiving than I am. He's saying that progress is largely a process of black swan events. I'm thinking that's it-- that's ALL it is. Dreyfus' link is less than useful, but yes, Heidegger.

...and thus we go back to drawing metaphysical things on the whiteboard. Hooray!

Matthew Moore
Matthew Moore

Interesting - some food (i.e., patterns) for thought! ;-)

Neuroscience has discovered in recent years that the way our thoughts are formed are in a sense "nothing more than discovery and translational application".

A great book that helps us to understand how our brain works and how to improve it is "Making a Good Brain Great" by Daniel G. Amen M.D. (http://www.amazon.com/Making-Good-Brain-Great-Performance/dp/1400082080)

Tony Bacigalupo
Tony Bacigalupo

Agreed. In a consistent system of physics, everything we do has to be, in some way, a result of our experiences and upbringing.

Which means a loss of true autonomy, but I don't think you should be frustrated by a loss of either. Because you are still capable of finding useful, interesting patterns that no one has before-- and you're not aware of your helplessness in the process.

Meg
Meg

I was going to leave a really long, drawn out comment about how I disagree with how you've extrapolated from your premise, but eh... someone else will probably do it, too.