"Where do you get your ideas from?"
It's the interview question that haunts every writer, artist, filmmaker, and inventor. Though the answer may disappoint, we can't seem to stop asking. We want to know what divine pixie dust separates the geniuses from the rest of us poor schmucks. Was Steve Jobs really a creative genius, the visionary techno-wizard who, with a wave of his hand summoned from thin air the Mac computer, iPhone, iPod and iPad? Or was he more man behind the curtain, subsisting for months at a time on only broccoli?
In his four-part documentary series “Everything is a Remix,” filmmaker and TED talker Kirby Ferguson is curiously silent on the broccoli issue. He does, however, have something to say about the nature of creativity. His central premise is that few ideas come from a vacuum. Instead, most creators, from George Lucas to DJ Danger Mouse, work off of pre-existing ideas.
From a neuroscience standpoint, this checks out. The brain craves the familiar, and it loves patterns. What we call creative breakthrough is often just your neural programs searching for new associations, rearranging the data into a new pattern.
For example: when ex-Hershey employee H.B. Reese, tinkering in his basement laboratory, took the delicious concoction called chocolate and paired it with the unlikely bedfellow peanut butter, it begat Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, a new riff on a couple of old standards.
Speaking of old standards, take Pachelbel’s Canon In D. This wedding and graduation mainstay is built around the following series of notes:
D A B F# G D G A
But as comedian Rob Paravonian once memorably observed, if you alter the speed or rhythm of this pattern, you get a sizable chunk of today's pop/rock canon. A partial list includes "Let it Be", U2's "With or Without You", "Hook" by Blues Traveler, "Basket Case" by Green Day, "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia, "No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley, the Laverne & Shirley theme, and Avril Lavigne's "Sk8r Boi". All of them, remixes on the same 300 year old theme––remixes that netted their modern day composers a bunch of money, thanks to their burst of ‘creative genius’. It makes you wonder who Pachelbel borrowed the idea from.
Kirby tells us that creativity follows a simple formula: copy, transform and combine. This can be seen in everything from Henry Ford’s assembly line, to Edison’s light bulb, to Apple computers (Mr. Jobs can thank Xerox for many aspects of the desktop interface) to Gotye's remix of his own song "Somebody that I Used to Know" made up entirely of other people's YouTube covers (a fractal remix!) to, yes, the simple but elegant peanut butter cup.
Creatively speaking, we stand on the shoulders of those that went before us, stealing––or remixing, if you prefer––to create the so-called new. Kirby suggests since we are working off the same cultural palette of experience, many technological breakthroughs are, as Henry Ford once said, inevitable. If Edison hadn’t made his lightbulb, someone else would have. This is why it’s no coincidence that so many inventors come out with virtually the same inventions at almost the same time.
Today, thanks to FMRIs, we know this rearranging of old ideas into new patterns takes place in the cingulate gyrus, located in your right brain behind your right ear. This is the home of your epiphanies, big and small, also the birthplace of Pixar’s A Bug's Life and Dreamworks' Antz, which if you recall, came out at about the same time.
So it appears it’s not the Music Man’s think system or the Wizard of Oz at work when it comes to creative genius. Nor is it lightning bolts hurled down by Zeus from above. And it doesn’t seem to flow from the netherworlds of our individual DNA. Basically, when peanut butter bumps into chocolate, you get peanut butter cups. When Henry Ford bumps into the meat packing plants in Chicago, you get the modern day assembly line. When Steve Jobs bumps into the Xerox Star, you get the Macintosh, and when Mr. Jobs bumped into broccoli for about a month, according to biographer Walter Isaacson, you get some pretty weird body odor.