How serendipity and colliding neurons work in real life
In the previous InnoColumn (“Serendipity in innovation”, November 1), I wrote about the reality of serendipity in innovation. But how does serendipity work, and what promotes serendipity? I owe some of the inspiration to Steven Johnson’s “Where good ideas come from” and to Mario Livio’s “Brilliant Blunders”.
Imagine a densely packed garden of flowers in full bloom. The smiling faces of the flowers, fully laden with pollen, bob daintily in the gentle breeze. A swarm of frenetic bees is at work, flitting around busily from flower to flower. The bees are transferring pollen (male) to the pistils (female), thus, causing a riot of cross pollination. In this way, the garden will continue to bloom with an iridescent variety of flowers.
The garden of flowers can be used as a metaphor for reproduction in general. Think of the flowers as chromosomesand the pollen on top as genes (DNA which encodes proteins). Each gene contains a unique code of life and the chromosomes carry the genes in “full bloom”. Through the reproductive chaos (such as the bees), genes for a unique protein in a female will periodically encounter the gene for that unique protein in the male. Some genes miraculously mate to produce a new life that is neither one nor the other of the parent genes, nor a simple average of the two parents. This is how human and animal reproduction takes place.
These metaphors help to understand how ideas are produced in the brain. The brain has zillions of cells that generate and transmit electrical charges called neurons. The neurons are in a constant state of apparently chaotic activity, flashing about through a complex electrical wiring (called axon). When the flashing neurons transmit the charge to the ends of their axon cable, they encounter an electrical gap called the synapse.
The neurons need the equivalent of the bees to get connected. Nature provides this through neurotransmitters, called dopamine and serotonin. When the frenetic neuron reaches the synapse, it releases neurotransmitters in the form of a chemical soup that floats across to the eager axon on the adjacent neuron.
For the most part, the frenetic neurons flash about in a chaotic manner. Sometimes, a bunch of neurons begin to act synchronously, a bit like the instruments in a chaotic orchestra suddenly starting to play in harmony. These are the magical moments when the flashing neurons become an idea. As it happens with reproduction, in idea formation too, only sometimes do neurons fuse into an idea. Scientists have found that the more chaotic the neuron activity in the brain, the higher the IQ of the person!
Dreams arise as a result of the mind experimenting with new combinations of neurons; dreams are, therefore, are an act of exploration of new things by the mind rather than Sigmund Freud’s concept of dreams as unveiling a repressed truth!
Thus, ideas arise out of colliding and frenetic neurons, but how do you get the neurons to be frenetic?
Neurons get activated by diversity, and by a change in the routine of activity and thinking. Wrestling with an opinion different from your own, bending the mind to see an opposite view, going away for a holiday, taking a long walk, reading an unconnected book, listening to music, or even sleeping over a problem – all these get the neurons firing and colliding to provide new combinations of thoughts.
So, creativity can be fostered, if not quite engineered – just like reproduction in animals and pollination in
I delved into my memory for examples of fostered creativity, which I call serendipity, rather than rely on the inspiring stories of Archimedes, Kekule and Mendeleev. I narrate one story from Hindustan Lever in this article and, next month, I will relate another from Tata.
The Hindustan Lever Research Centre began in 1958 in a spare room at the factory. A brilliant Cambridge-educated Dr S Varadarajan assembled a bunch of highly-qualified scientists. These scientists were vastly different in temperament, background and discipline, but were prepared mentally by the company’s leaders to be passionately united in the quest for products that could advance business. One such scientist was Dr Girish Mathur.
In 1966, as a result of his studies on dermatology and skin cancer, biologist Mathur got intrigued by what causes fair skin. Girish’s team dived deep into what science taught about skin complexion. A lot had to do with evolution because the amount of ultraviolet radiation that penetrates skin has to be regulated. One important factor was a substance called melanin, and its distribution under the skin that has a strong influence on complexion – a bit like the amount and spread of butter on a toast influences its taste perception. Should the research team develop a product to regulate the distribution of melanin? They produced a prototype product by 1971, but it sat on the shelf.
In 1973, the marketers observed that the newspaper matrimonial columns were full of advertisements “for fair brides”. They wondered whether it was possible to produce a cream that could make women fair, naturally and without bleaching the skin. It was a consumer need and merely the opposite of the western practice of tanning the skin!
These events aligned the minds of the scientists, the marketers and the production folks. It took two years of colliding viewpoints and neurons to formulate a safe product. The professionals argued fiercely: there were huge differences of perspective among the scientists, and also between the scientists and the marketers. As I now recall the events after 40 years, the developments had a Robert Ludlum-type denouement with twists and turns, hopes and despair. And the neurons kept colliding relentlessly. Today, Unilever has the world’s most successful fairness cream, with millions of loyal customers for Fair and Lovely.
But this story is not about Girish Mathur (now an 82-year-old “youngster”) or Fair and Lovely, but about how serendipity and colliding neurons work in real life.