Brain Food #816: Ideas come to us when we are ready for them
"In time, we will find each other."
Thoughts of the day
There is a concept in science known as ‘multiple discovery,’ suggesting that many scientific discoveries tend to be made more than once, simultaneously, and by completely unrelated individuals or groups.
The telegraph was invented in the same year by two different people, Charles Wheatstone and Samuel Morse. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed patents for the telephone on the same day. Charles Darwin and Arthur Russell Wallace developed their natural selection theories almost concurrently, and eventually released them in a joint publication. The examples of multiple discovery are countless: the microchip, the jet engine, the Pap test, the Big Bang Theory, adrenaline, endorphins, radioactivity, oxygen, even the crossbow, were simultaneously discovered, invented, or understood at roughly the same time, by different people, often in different locations.
Thomas Edison said, “I never had an idea in my life. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment – I took them out. I've created nothing. Nobody does. There's no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside.”
Despite the fact that there is a certain form of determinism in this notion, it also provides a new way to look at creativity and innovation as part of evolution: ideas come to us when we are ready for them.
Musician and writer Nick Cave eloquently addressed this in his Red Hand Files:
“It may sound like I’m taking all this a little too personally, but I’m a songwriter who is engaged, at this very moment, in the process of songwriting. It’s a blood and guts business, here at my desk, that requires something of me to initiate the new and fresh idea. It requires my humanness. What that new idea is, I don’t know, but it is out there somewhere, searching for me. In time, we will find each other.”
There is also another idea at play here, about the insignificance of the individual. If ideas exist in the environment until they manifest, we are simply vehicles for them. If it is not going to be us, then someone else will, eventually, receive them instead. This can be a strangely reassuring thought: relieved from the weight of responsibility, the least we can do is try.
With the rapid spread and availability of information, a more cynical view might suggest that what looks like a coincidence today is merely a form of competition or copying. But this can be explained more forgivingly: some discoveries are only made possible due to the groundwork previously laid by others. One thing leads to the next. In this sense, ideas are the result of timing, our openness to our environment, the information we receive from it, and the ability to make new connections.
Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz also wrote about this form of synchronicity in science and evolution:
“As soon as we notice that certain types of event ‘like’ to cluster together at certain times, we begin to understand the attitude of the Chinese, whose theories of medicine, philosophy, and even building are based on a ‘science’ of meaningful coincidences. The classical Chinese texts did not ask what causes what, but rather what ‘likes’ to occur with what.”
Very often, even in science, something works, but no one can explain why. Physics still cannot explain the bicycle; the version familiar to us today came to be thanks to the work of multiple inventors in the 19th century.
Sometimes, even if the reasons are not immediately obvious to us, the patterns might already be there, acting as a sign of an impending discovery, whether in the world or in oneself.
Cubism first surfaced in art through the works of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) between 1907 and 1914, though the term was coined by a French art critic after he had seen their work. The two artists created Cubism by bringing together different fragments of objects in the same picture, to create something new in an abstract form, without an immediate, obvious meaning.
This post is part of a running theme I am loosely exploring, related to synchronicity, questions, and answers. You can read some of the previous posts here and here; as always, further exploration is encouraged.
Thank you for reading today’s Brain Food. Brain Food is a short newsletter that aims to make you think without taking up too much of your time. If you know someone who would like this post, consider spreading the word and forwarding it to them. Brain Food wouldn’t exist without the support of its readers.
And if you have just come across Brain Food, you can subscribe to it below:
For longer thoughts and Brain Food highlights from the archives, visit Medium.
All creators copy.