Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Shadow avoidance

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 6, 2008

A nascent idea – a recent Ah ha! – is an ephemeral thing.  It exists only as fluttering pulses of energy flying around the 100 billion neurons in a human brain.  (Tip: an easy way to remember this figure is to think of the number of stars in our galaxy, which also happens to be about 100 billion.  How you remember there are 100 billion stars in our galaxy is up to you.  I find that writing down things I want to remember, and then looking at what I’ve written, helps).  You may also find it interesting that the number of potential interconnections between those neurons is greater than the number of fundamental particles in the entire universe.  That’s a big number no matter how you look it at, but I digress.

Turning those electrical pulses into something happening in the real world is what particularly interests me.  The easiest way to do so is to tell someone about it, so that it starts fluttering amongst their 100 billion neurons as well.  When you tell someone about an idea, something changes in the universe and it’s when ideas spread amongst many people that the real magic can happen.

Or not.  As we all know, our natural predisposition when it comes to new ideas is to say ‘that’ll never work’.  There are many good reasons for this.   We didn’t get to be here because our ancestors – and not just the human ones – took unnecessary risks.  Unlike the vast majority of individuals who have resulted from the fusion of two gametes, they at least made it to the point where they could produce their own fusible gametes. Evolution, it could be argued, has programmed us to be cautious: to stick with what we know works. This gives us a natural tendency to dismiss new ideas straight away so that we can get on with the tricky business of staying alive.  I call this tendency to evaluate ideas ‘premature evaluation’.  This sometimes makes people giggle but I can’t imagine why.

The word ‘premature’ is important here – when ideas first flicker into life we usually have no idea where they might end up.  Negatively evaluating an idea too soon – before it’s had a chance to grow and stretch its limbs a little – is a sure to way to kill it.  We all know that. If you’ve ever been involved in an organised brainstorming session (as some people think we shouldn’t call it – I’m with the Campaign for Plain English on this one) you’ll know that ‘no evaluation’ is the main rule even though many people find it one that’s virtually impossible to apply.

Obviously it’s necessary to avoid premature evaluation if ideas are to make the difficult transition from inside our brains to out there, making the world better in some way. The poet T S Eliot used rather more elegant language than me when he described what often happens to ideas.  In his poem ‘The Hollow Men‘ he wrote (just in case you’re too busy attempting to survive in this cruel world, it starts on line 78 of the excellent hypertext version to which that last link points):

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow.

Nice one TS, even though you probably didn’t have people in suits brainstorming around a whiteboard in mind when you wrote it.

So, what’s needed if the aforementioned idea is ever to hit the streets in anything like the form I have in mind, is some shadow avoidance.  Or perhaps, shadow illumination.  In management-speak a risk analysis might help.  As the idea in question involves a large, nuclear equipped foreign country I suggested to one of the victims of my email storm that the worst that could happen (that’s pretty much what risk analysis is – imagining the worst that could happen) in this case is that it causes a minor diplomatic incident which escalates out of hand leading to all-out nuclear war and the destruction of life as we know it.  Well, it could happen.

Incidentally, I might have given the impression above that all ideas make the world a better place. This is, of course, wrong.  The world would certainly be a much better place if some ideas had been prematurely evaluated at birth. Take selling popcorn in cinemas, for example. Who on earth thought that selling the noisest possible edible food in a place where SOME PEOPLE (ie me) would rather listen to what the people on screen are actually saying, rather than the row of people sitting behind them grazing like a heard of very noisy cows on overpriced, sugar-laden thermally expanded maize should be shot.  And popcorn isn’t the only example of a really bad idea, obviously. The tricky part, of course, is distinguishing between the bad ideas and the good ones.

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2 Responses to “Shadow avoidance”

  1. […] of course, they each have an amazingly capable, astonishing, most-complex-object-in-the-universe 100 billion neuron Human brain.  But we shall add to the mental tool-set they need to be good explorers and we’ll also give […]

  2. […] Then, in July 2008, I realised who blogs are for: the poster, rather than the reader.  In July I started posting about an idea that occurred to Jacquie (’Mrs Mindworks’ in some of the posts) and me one day while we were walking along the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal, one of my favourite spots on the planet. That first post was about why most ideas remain just ideas don’t see the light of day. […]

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