Random Brains

Social proteanism may have provided a set of brain mechanisms for randomizing that could have been modified to play an important role in human creativity. Proteanism depends on the capacity for the rapid, unpredictable generation of highly variable alternatives. Creativity researchers agree that creativity depends on exactly this sort of mechanism, though they disagree about whether to call it "divergent thinking," "remote association," or something else. As far back as 1960, psychologist Donald Campbell insisted on the importance of randomness in creativity. He saw an analogy between creative thought and genetic evolution: both work through an interplay between "blind variation' and "selective retention." It is fairly clear how the brain might do the "selective retention" using well-studied aspects of judgment, evaluation, and memory. But how could the brain produce large numbers of "mutant" ideas when creativity is demanded?

Perhaps brain areas that originally evolved for proteanism were modified in the service of creativity. Instead of randomizing escape plans and social strategies, these brain areas might have been re-engineered to randomly activate and recombine ideas. As with all forms of proteanism, this random activation would happen at the appropriate level of behavior. If one is improvising jazz music, one might activate random melody fragments and very quickly sort through them using various unconscious filters. One would not activate random memories of life events, random limb movements, or random moral ideals.

It is hard to test such a theory at the moment, but it will become easier with advances in neuroscience and behavior genetics. The theory that creativity derives from proteanism suggests that some of the same brain systems should be active in playing Matching Pennies and in doing various creative tasks. It also suggests that some of the same genes associated with high randomization abilities in strategic games should also predict high creativity (after controlling for general intelligence, of course). However, this random-brain theory is not very satisfying, because it does not identify what selection pressures favored creativity. To do that, we have to ask why evolution would favor amplified displays of the brain systems used in proteanism.

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