In their first book together, The Runaway Species, superstar neuroscientist David Eagleman and music composer Anthony Brandt give us an answer, explaining how somewhere along our evolutionary timeline, “a slight tweak in our neural algorithms” propelled us onto a runaway trajectory.
This tweak can be whittled down to a strategic process that they describe as ‘breaking, blending and bending.’ This process is how our brains take in the infinite cultural and social inputs of the world around us to remix, innovate and create.
In their view, this is the ultimate apex tool that has allowed us to become masters of our future, present, and past, placing us firmly on top of the animal kingdom’s ladder. To interact, to come up with new ideas or even to survive takes a whole lot of creativity, so why did this unrivalled creative flair only occur in humans? We sit down to discuss this with Dr. David Eaglaman and Anthony Brandt, as well as how the societal suppression of creativity at an early age can be so detrimental to the future of our society.
From my understanding you called this book The Runaway Species because at some point you posit that our biological mechanism for creativity skyrocketed, making us unique in the animal kingdom. Can you elaborate on this?
DE: When you look across the animal kingdom you find brains that pretty much look like human brains, with the same cell types and the same structure generally, so the question is why is it when you look at animal habitats they are exactly as they always have looked, but then you look at a city like London and it doesn’t look a thing like it did 1000 years ago? What is clear is that there is one single species, us, that is doing something completely different even though our brains are very similar. Part of the goal was to look at what the tweak was that happened, and as you can see in the book, part of that is this expansion of the cortex which gave us the ability to not be so reflexive and instead be more thoughtful about possibilities. The expansion of the prefrontal cortex allowed us to simulate ‘what ifs’. That launched our civilisation.
AB: I will always remember this conversation we had when we were first working on the book. I came in one morning and I said, “David why is it that other animals have brains?” He said, “Oh, I’ve got a good answer for that.” So the fundamental reason is the controlled motion through space. For instance, there’s a mollusc or sea squirt that spends a good deal of its life trying to find its nesting ground, and then when it chooses the rock that it’s going to live on, it cements itself there and eats its own brain because it doesn’t need it anymore.
Out of that ability to navigate your environment came this trade-off that all animals had built into their brains between exploration and exploitation. What I had never thought of before David started talking about this trade-off is that human creativity is just the extrapolation of this exploration part, and because of our special neural architecture, we can explore to a degree and apply that attitude of exploration to things animals would never have dreamed of.
“With human brains, you can put a lot of stuff in there and it gets mashed up and thrown around and broken, and in the process you get all these new ideas.”
This idea that you reference quite a few times is this ‘breaking, bending and blending’, the idea that we exploit, break things open and put things back together all the time. But for me, the true question of creativity remains how something comes from absolutely nothing?
DE: Even though you can feel that way that something was so creative and wonder how someone did it, nothing comes from nothing; it’s all just a remix of what we have taken in. You will notice that different cultures – less so now because of the Internet, but maybe 100 years ago – have very different music, novels or art. You couldn’t confuse a 19th-century Japanese novel with a 19th century French or American novel. The reason is that we are products of our space and time. That’s not to say that there’s no originality but it is a remix of what you have. There’s no possibility that you, no matter how creative you are, are going to come up with a 19th-century Japanese piece of music if you live in 19th century England.
AB: So let’s take The Beatles as an example. They created music that never existed before, but they would be the first to tell you how much they are building on the music of the generation before them, as well as classical music. When the producer puts violins in a rock song, where did the violins come from? That came from the classical tradition. You can find all these constraints on what they are working in but of course, they tweak it one level further and human culture has this wonderful astonishment and glorification of it.
But then there is still this idea that it comes from nothing because The Beatles are one in a billion. So what makes them so much more capable of this creativity?
DE: A big part of what qualifies as creative has to do with what catches on in the culture. There is a sweet spot between what is familiar and what is novel; somewhere in the middle, you can make something sitting on top of your cultural heritage and make just enough of a change for people to really love it. But there were plenty of other people just as creative as The Beatles and for whatever other sets of reasons they didn’t catch on to the same degree.
AB: The longer that the both of us look the more we encounter super smart people. It’s amazing the amount of work going on all over the world. We tend to give the credit to the person who somehow reaches into the public consciousness but they are really dependent on all the tilling of the soil that is going on around them.
DE: This is super clear in the sciences where we award someone with a Nobel Prize but, my God, it is completely dependent on everybody else, so that’s why everyone gets mad whenever the Nobel is awarded.
AB: The other dimension to your question is why are great ideas rare? It’s true, and we don’t really deal with that in the book because we saw the intention of the book to recognise how awe-inspiring it is that creativity is so ordinary. Nobody is going around every day saying the same thing to each other, even the way we talk and relate. You can’t sustain a long-term relationship without creativity.
“There were plenty of other people just as creative as The Beatles and for whatever other sets of reasons they didn’t catch on to the same degree.”
But we don’t give that the label of creativity.
DE: We do.
AB: Yes, we do. Our hope is, especially when it comes to education, that instead of glamorising it and saying how gifted these certain people are who we find at 5 and only they are allowed to study the arts, we have to nurture and encourage it in everyone. The basic tools of creativity can be applied in any domain. So study them, nurture them and encourage them, then whatever the person chooses to be they will have the wherewithal to function in a lively way.
It’s this idea again of the survival of the fittest, even in the creative sense.
DE: And what’s interesting is that the reason survival of the fittest happens is because of all of these cultural constraints about what fits at your moment in space and time. One of the stories in the book is about Beethoven when he came up with this great finale to a piece he was composing. Everyone hated it and then he got suppressed and wrote something else but 100 years later people started to appreciate it so now it is considered one of the greatest pieces of music of all time.
You make a powerful statement in the book that, “human minds represent an enormous jungle of memories and sensations in which the meeting of ideas is unconstrained.” Could you explain that?
DE: You live for many years, you absorb everything in your culture, and all of that is the storehouse out of which you are building new things.
One of the stories that we covered is about this woman who got amnesia because of brain damage, so she couldn’t remember anything and as a result, she couldn’t come up with anything new. Once you lose your memories you can’t actually simulate the future.
The interesting thing about human brains that is different from the way we build computers, is that when you build a computer or smartphone, you put in a series of 0s and 1s and later when you need it the machine will give back exactly what you need, which is why we value these things. But with human brains, you can put a lot of stuff in there and it gets mashed up and thrown around and broken, and in the process you get all these new ideas.
AB: This goes back to your question about why great ideas are so rare. Part of it is bound up with what creativity, at its heart, is about, which is ‘what ifs’ and just throwing ideas out there that are all on the spectrum from the familiar to giant leaps and everywhere in between. Our brains are constantly mashing these things up and sprinkling the world with those kinds of things, but only a few of them turn out to be really valuable, take root and flower into something.
There might not be any scientific evidence for this but maybe you could talk about a hunch you might have – do you think we carry around the culture and ideas of our forefathers through our DNA or the brain?
DE: I don’t think so. The brain is essentially a general-purpose computational device that takes in whatever inputs it has around it.
So I think that there are some leftovers from our evolutionary history in terms of the particular feelings we have about aggression and certainly reproduction, things like that. But in terms of taking in the world and creating new versions of it, that is the here and now.
So why do we carry with us more ancient traditions rather than some of the more modern traits?
DE: It is because the only survivors we have are those that are interested in reproduction or in defending oneself to keep and gather food. So if there were people along the way who didn’t carry that part of their ancient past, we don’t see them.
We are in a unique moment in human history where, less than ever before, we don’t have to worry about our survival – we can get delicious food, sleep well and shelter from the rain, no animals chasing us around. So we have this opportunity now, which the human species has taken great advantage of, to be creative instead of just worrying about survival all the time.
“We are in a unique moment in human history where, […] we have this opportunity now, which the human species has taken great advantage of, to be creative instead of just worrying about survival all the time.”
If this book was written by an academic in Africa, they would have a vastly different idea of the ‘Runaway Species’. So were you aware that your own world-view was deeply ingrained in this?
AB: Oh absolutely. Inevitably the angles that we have are built from the resources that were at hand, so if we were living in a different part of the world or a different time it would be a totally different storehouse of materials.
DE: That said, I’m not really concerned as much that this is a culturally hyper-focused book because the whole idea was to address the species, to address what we are doing as humankind and what is the basic neurological software running under the hood, which is exactly the same software running in Africa.
But do we not approach things and see things differently from other cultures in the creative sense?
DE: Speaking as a neuroscientist, the human species diverged across different areas of the planet very recently, so there’s no difference in brains between Zaire and the West. So what you are saying doesn’t even strike me as an issue, maybe they are running a different set of rules culturally, but the biology and brains are exactly the same. Then, as I said, we spent a lot of time thinking about what culturally sticks, and in different places around the world different stuff sticks culturally based on the history of the place.
AB: Our creativity is one part of our mental software but we have a lot of other parts. We are complicated beings and there are political organisations that undeniably repress that part of our behaviour just like they can repress parts of our sexual behaviour. So that also has its impacts and influences.
We should be reminded language was born in Africa as one of the most creative endeavours of humankind ever in its ability to be constantly renovated and remodelled for the ways that we express ourselves. That was a phenomenal concept that was probably created by a group of people improvising thousands of years ago.
“Brains are steaming along with activity all the time, even when we sleep. This wasn’t discovered until 1953.”
What specifically inhibits creativity and what is the by-product of inhibiting it? It makes for a very bleak society, doesn’t it?
AB: There are very few of those societies that we look at with admiration, or feel that they have made lasting contributions to human culture. When you take a society that is austere, incredibly conservative and does not tolerate taking the past and remodelling it, it remains stuck and doesn’t really lead to the kinds of innovation and progress that we as humankind tend to celebrate.
I really enjoyed watching your documentary on the brain, this idea that the brain fashions its own rich narrative and we make our own reality and identity. How does that intersect with the idea of creativity or what’s under the hood in that sense?
DE: What’s happening is your whole culture comes in, the number of new things you see and ideas you get, all of this instead of becoming reflexive in terms of turning it into an output, in human brains there is more space there developed between sensory inputs and motor outputs. So there is all this territory where we can take new inputs, not act on them but store them and mash them together.
What’s happening under the hood is this constant manipulation, like a food processor, and then these ‘what ifs’.
And you are saying that this is happening all the time?
AB: All the time.
DE: Brains are steaming along with activity all the time, even when we sleep. This wasn’t discovered until 1953 when the first EEG was put on a sleeper and they realised that the brain is just as active when we are asleep as when we are awake.
OK, so then a brain hits another brain.
DE: Yes, and this is where the magic happens. We are an extremely social species, one of only 19 social species it turns out. The interesting thing is that humans are always trying to impress and surprise one another, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, it is an incredibly useful thing that we do. So we are both trying to say something that makes you think, “Oh, I never heard that before.” So we are using each other to do this, and one of the things we put in the book that I really love is this idea that if you want to actually build artificial intelligence in a meaningful way, what you should do is build a series of AI agents that are all trying to impress one another. And so you have all of these computers constantly competing to say the thing that will make all the others think, “Fuck, I never thought of that.”
AB: So there is this virtuous loop that goes on in our capacity to constantly generate options and the need of the other person to constantly be surprised. Those two things work in tandem with each other to basically create our runaway imaginations.
We spoke with the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge recently, and I asked him if he thinks that all of us have the potential to be explorers. He said that we absolutely do, that we are all born natural explorers, but as we grow up society diminishes our creative impulse and idealism. Maybe you can talk about this idea.
DE: We have a chapter in the book talking about how the way that we structure school systems is still the way that we have been doing it since the Industrial Revolution. The problem is that there has been this exponential increase in the speed of our society, things are changing rapidly and the jobs that will be available to our children 20 years from now, we don’t even know the names for most of those jobs. And so what we are doing is teaching a lot of ‘just in case’ knowledge, whereas what kids really need is a lot of ‘just in time’ knowledge, which is to say if the child says, ‘Oh I’m curious about this, how do I find out about it?’
What we really need to be teaching our kids is cognitive flexibility instead of a set of things that they need to memorise.
“What we are doing is teaching a lot of ‘just in case’ knowledge, whereas what kids really need is a lot of ‘just in time’ knowledge.”
What is that?
DE: Cognitive flexibility is the ability to say that given X, Y and Z, how do I solve this next thing? They’ve never been confronted with it and there’s no answer in the back of the book, but this is what I have in front of me right now. That is the kind of thing that is so valuable and the skill that we need to be teaching our children, but it is not what is always taught.
When schools start to run out of the money, the first thing that gets cut is the arts. The problem with that, which we argue in this book, is that the arts show this breaking, bending and blending overtly; you can study the arts and see all this stuff happening, and this is exactly the same skill set you need in the sciences for example, and while there it is typically covert, the neural processes are exactly the same. Unfortunately, the sciences are more often than not taught differently, where you have the answers in the back of the book. But good scientists are all about figuring out how to do that next thing.
AB: Especially in the US, we seem to want to rush children into adulthood as quickly as possible. You even see schools where in 1st grade they are asking kids to write down what their major is going to be at college, so they can already start plotting the path they need to follow. There is no parent on the planet that does not recognise the software of creativity running in their child’s brain – all you have to do is watch them play. We would say that one of the functions of education is to maintain that child in the person for as long as possible. I love this quote we have in the book from Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize for Physics that says, “Too often math textbooks are just about learning a method to guarantee you the right answer.” But actually what made him successful in physics was that he kept trying to find new ways to get the right answer. Then whenever he was blocked, he knew that he could flexibly move to another method, and that’s just a beautiful example of how to approach almost anything in life.
Feature shot by Stefan Oboski