An idea is like a foetus

14th Oct 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

By R Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor We routinely use the reproduction metaphor when we talk about ideas, for example, we use expressions like “The idea was born”, “How the idea was conceived”, or “The idea was aborted.” How did this metaphor of an idea in the brain and a foetus in the womb come about?

14th Oct 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

By R Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor

We routinely use the reproduction metaphor when we talk about ideas, for example, we use expressions like “The idea was born”, “How the idea was conceived”, or “The idea was aborted.” How did this metaphor of an idea in the brain and a foetus in the womb come about?

I set out to research whether this is just the poetic license of writers or is there some scientific basis, in which case, an idea must go through life-phases like conception, nurturing, infancy, adolescence, adulthood and ageing, much like human life! It could provide unusual insights into the innovation process–its reliance on chance, uncertainties in development, threats to survival and unexpected outcomes.

To recapitulate the human reproductive process, we should recall that over a hundred million sperms (tadpole like creatures with a head and tail) swim furiously for a very short time trying to reach one available female egg. Very occasionally, one of those ‘tadpoles’ succeeds by uniting with the female cell into what is called a zygote. The zygote becomes an embryo and then a foetus through complex natural processes. The foetus is nurtured in the female womb and emerges as a baby in due course. Humans truly are products of the greatest lottery, one out of over a hundred million other aspirants! Sure, this seems good reason to believe in luck! Now to the brain.

The brain is an incredible piece of equipment about which we know rather little, though modern advances are dramatic and insightful. The brain has about a hundred billion neurons. Neurons are long, skinny and complicated ‘things’ in the brain, a bit like a stacked plate of Chinese noodles! These neurons are frenetically active and they carry electrical charges all along their length. When the electrical charge reaches the end of the neuron, it ‘ejaculates’ a cloud of chemical messengers which find their way to the neighbouring neuron through ‘connector spaces’ called synapses. The chemical messengers travel across the synapses from neuron to neuron, a bit like a bee carries pollen from flower to flower. Notice similarities in the phenomenon with reproduction in plants, bees and humans.

This licentious description—by combining known science with imagination and wordsmithing–helps a lay person understand how the brain works and how frenetic the activity is. Zillions of neurons are thus firing all the time, discharging clouds of dopamine and serotonin, in an apparently uncoordinated and wasteful way, a bit like the chaotic traffic in a city like Mumbai or Bengaluru. It is an inefficient process of throwing a lot to accomplish a chancy encounter, accompanied by a lot of waste and loss. Occasionally, quite magically and mysteriously, the randomly firing neurons gets highly organised: they fire in harmony, a bit as if a babble of musicians have seen the orchestra conductor’s baton appear before them. Similar to the chaotic noise becomes orderly music in an orchestra, an idea emerges out of the firing neurons. Like the zygote has several survival challenges, the conceived idea too has huge survival challenges.

As a student of innovation I draw several lessons out of the metaphor: firstly, that ideation is short-lived, chancy, random, and wastefully inefficient; secondly, just as human birth is a lottery of a chance in several million, so too is the conception of an idea in the brain. There are zillions of flashing neurons in the brains of the seven billion people in the world, but very few materialize into some primitive form of reality. Getting an idea is a random and statistical process; thirdly, that the creative process is about as wasteful and inefficient as the reproductive system; lastly that just as there arise instant threats to the survival of the embryo, so also with ideas. All bright “What an idea, Sirji” stuff does not survive.

The further evolution of an idea in the brain is a bit like the journey of a zygote in the womb. Nature does its job and, frankly, I am sure that lay people do not need to understand nature’s marvels. Lay folks are able to understand the reproductive marvel only when a bundle of joy emerges. In the same way, the idea sloshing around as a result of aggressively-firing neurons has no recognisable life of its own until one fine day, the person is able to articulate the idea through words, pictures or gestures. That magical moment is the equivalent of the maternity ward. Here is what scientist, Friedrich von Kekule, said when he got the idea of the benzene ring,”….Larger structures, turning and twisting in a snake-like motion…as if by a flash of lightning, I awoke…” Unarticulated ideas are like aborted foetuses.

Using this metaphor, it is possible to think of the ‘biography of innovation’—how ideas are conceived, how only some survive, how some are born, how they mature into infants and go through a life-cycle. I find the metaphor greatly instructive and inspiring.

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