"Original thought" - fact or fiction?

Western society worships original thought – we value the “originality” of the artist, the creator, the inventor – , and ever increasingly so as we transition from an industrial to an information society. An information society, which further more, in need of a legal and commercial substrate for its economy, has created the concept of intellectual property and made “original thought” this concept’s foundation.

Numenta’s hard-won insight into thought processes however leaves no room for “originality”. We now know that every input and output of the mind is an SDR, and that all the outputs are computed, to the last bit, from the inputs according to the algorithms presented in Numenta’s papers. No SDRs get “created” out of nothing unless I overlooked the line of code in NuPIC where original thought gets introduced into the process. Feel free to point it out to me.

So this relegates “original thought” to the same pool of Western religious superstitions that’s already inhabited by “soul” and “free will”. What happens to individuals and societies that are fooling themselves this way? Is an information society based on the idea of “original thought” like an industrial society based on the idea of “free energy”? Does it lead to cognitive dissonance and economic mayhem? Can this be observed already or aren’t we far down enough in the transition just yet?



I have long thought that humans do not have "original thoughts’ as described in the classic sense.
(see what I did there?)

We seek out novel experiences.

That is why we set up experiences to be exposed to new ideas that can be synthesized into “original thoughts.”

For example - we have laboratories where we can be exposed to previously un-experienced observations. We listen to new music. We travel to new places to add to our repository of experiences. We read books and watch movies to experience things vicariously.

Much of what passes for original thought is happy accidents that happen to someone that is constantly working in a given field; some people are very good at paying attention to accidents while practicing and using those as inspiration. You do have to be open to recognizing a happy accident as a useful thing.

That said - we excel at combining prior experiences into novel combinations that are often considered “original.”


Maybe it could be argued that ‘original thought’ or ‘accidents’ are a result of quantum randomness in reactions that take place in the brain, or where a dendritic connection within a frequently active region of the brain just happens to randomly grow into a new region, creating a connection that manifests as “original thought”… kind of makes sense too… if you’re activating those parts if your brain frequently enough, that activity might facilitate random dendritic extensions that produce a lot of garbage ‘noise’, with the rare cross connection between otherwise disparate regions of activation.

I’ve little evidence to support this conjecture, other than personal intuition gained from personal experience as I’ve immersed myself into topics in the past that find ways to combine eventually… but being actively engaged in those separate areas seems to be key to making connections between them.

I read your response to mean that you think that some sort of random quantum thing is going on in the brain to make this “original thought” happen.

I assert that NO original thought originates in the brain but is in fact - all are combinations of experience.

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If all experience is unique then by definition all thought is original. Thoughts being your lossy event stream combined with your projection making machinery.

I would even go on to say that all identical states of mind represent indistinguishable universes from the perspective of any observer.

a result of quantum randomness in reactions that take place in the
brain, or where a dendritic connection within a frequently active region
of the brain just happens to randomly grow into a new region, creating a
connection that manifests as “original thought”

Could you please add this functionality to NuPIC? I’d like to run my HTM
and watch what sorts of original ideas it comes up with.


In some cultures the Devil-God figure is characterized by intelligence - the intelligence that falls in love with it’s own creations, thinking they are perfect models of the vast, unbounded reality.

The simple truth is no model, not even HTM fully describes what actually happens in the real world. We ought not fall in love with our models thinking that they are reality itself. They’re not.

Consider the musings of Penrose when he thought of where consciousness comes from or how it manifests. His theory that microtubules in the brain more or less provide the appropriate scale of structure to encode quantum information and amplify its effects. Who are we to say that the only scale of importance is the scales of neurons and cortical columns?

Is not existence one thing by definition? Therefore must all things play a role in how all other things work? The universe is continuous. And if continuous then ineffable - boundless with regards to specific precision.

Consider instead, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. If we use formal systems of logic to describe reality, and if it is proved that all interesting formal systems are either incomplete or inconsistent then we can conclude there is no formal system of logic that can describe reality in its entirety. This means there’s no way to explain consciousness in its entirety - because only that which is conscious is known to exist.

In that way every conscious thought is original - whatever it feels like to be conscious is whatever it feels like to be that certain configuration of information - those particular SDR’s, and those SDR’s need not always lead directly to the next ones. what they lead to is determined by the receding edge; the invisible initial conditions. Anything could be anything.


Similar to what others have said, I think it’s based largely on experience. I also think that there are artificial boundaries for thought that change slowly across a population, that the individual innovates within. There is a huge and heavy foundation to lay at the bottom of our thought hierarchies.

Like natural selection creating a new species, the change to these boundaries can be subtle at the time but more obvious in hindsight.

I love the grid-cell inspired idea that even our most abstract thoughts are ultimately tethered to some real physical experience - like @blue2 I really think it challenges the old idea that our insights somehow appear from within.

As Stephen Jay Gould said:

I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.