Many new ideas are not new ideas at all. They are ideas built upon existing ideas, reusing and borrowing ideas.
Dr David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, who co-authored The Runaway Species, writes about three strategies that he suggests are the primary means by which ideas evolve: bending, breaking and blending.
His approach provides a means for us to understand how our imagination captures what we observe, how the whole brain connects across neural networks, and how this results in new and creative ideas.
In bending, an original idea is modified or twisted out of shape.
In breaking, a whole idea is taken apart.
In blending, two or more sources are merged.
Dr Eagleman’s bending, breaking and blending are examples of remodelling tools that our brain uses to turn both our personal experiences and our culture into the raw materials for new and creative ideas. The key to having a good creative idea is to have many ideas, using these tools, and refining these ideas to find a workable solution to the issue or problem you want to address.
Bending is like a “makeover of an existing protype. It opens up a well spring of possibilities through alterations in size, shape, material, speed, chronology and more”.
A great example of this is Claude Monet’s thirty different paintings of the same fixed scene of the Rouen Cathedral over two years at various times of the day. He used the cathedral as a starting point and then sought new ideas by bending the parameters of when he painted. Bending can remodel a source with endless variety.
Breaking “enables us to take something solid or continuous and fracture it into manageable pieces. Our brains parse the world into units that can be then rebuilt and reshaped.”
Dr Eagleman points to language as an example of breaking. People break words to speed up communication, shortening gymnasium to gym, or with the use of acronyms like FBI and the UN. “Our ease with these kinds of acronyms demonstrates how much brains like compression: we’re good at breaking things down, keeping the best bits, and still understanding the point.”
Blending is where the brain combines two or more sources, cross-pollinating ideas and enabling different lines of thought to combine in novel ways. Consider the ancient example of the Egyptian Sphinx, a blend of half human and half lion, blended to create an entirely new concept or idea.
Eagleman, D., Brandt, A (2017) The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world. Canongate, UK