I devoured Steven Johnson’s forthcoming book, Where Good Ideas Come From, over the course of a few bus rides and absolutely loved it. Here’s one bit that’s now stuck in my head:
So, our brains are full of patterns, obviously. One of them is the oscillation between neurons firing all in sync and firing at random—sort of a flip-flop between coherence (the technical term is “phase-lock”) and noise. Well…
In 2007, Robert Thatcher, a brain scientist at the University of South Florida, decided to study the vacillation between phase-lock and noise in the brains of dozens of children. While Thatcher found that the noise periods lasted, on average, for 55 milliseconds, he also detected statistically significant variation among the children. Some brains had a tendency to remain longer in phase-lock, others had noise intervals that regularly approached 60 milliseconds. When Thatcher then compared the brain-wave results with the children’s IQ scores, he found a direct correlation between the two data sets. Every extra millisecond spent in the chaotic mode added as much as 20 IQ points. Longer spells in phase-lock deducted IQ points, though not as dramatically.
Thatcher’s study suggests a counterintuitive notion: the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are.
(Can we just pause here for a fist-pump and a quiet whispered “yesss”?)
It’s counterintuitive in part because we tend to attribute the growing intelligence of the technology world with increasingly precise electromechanical choreography. Intel doesn’t advertise its latest microprocessors with the slogan: “Every 55 milliseconds, our chips erupt into a blizzard of noise!” Yet somehow brains that seek out that noise seem to thrive, at least by the measure of the IQ test.
A few grafs later, to sum things up, here’s William James by way of Steven Johnson:
Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rareified abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard-of combinations of elements… a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbling about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems the only law.
He’s describing “the highest order of minds”—but he could just as easily be describing a startup, or a city. Which is exactly, I think, the point.