IN THE SPRING OF 2002
, a team of researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, conducted a remarkable experiment.1
The experiment went something like this: A rhesus monkey is trained to play a computer game. The point of the game is to use a yellow cursor to chase down a red dot that moves randomly across the screen like an erratic hockey puck. The game looks and feels like something designed for a child except for one noticeable difference. The monkey doesn’t use a mouse or a joystick to play this game. Rather, the monkey moves the cursor with its mind. It controls where the cursor goes—mentally.2
When these results were published in the prestigious science journal Nature
, they became what was likely the most reported Brown University science story ever.3
The day the press release circulated over the wires, Mijail Serruya, the graduate student behind the experiments, was flooded with calls from every corner of the globe. “I’m on the way
to the bathroom to brush my teeth, half asleep,” Serruya recalls, “and it’s ‘Hello. This is the BBC.’” Reporters wanted to know everything from whether people could use the technology for military contraptions to whether it could help a “couch potato” get off his butt.
This story is especially compelling not just because of what the team of scientists discovered, but also because it was a result of a deliberate effort to find an intersection of disciplines. The group behind this particular breakthrough consisted of mathematicians, medical doctors, neuroscientists, and computer scientists, all playing crucial roles in understanding how the brain works. The team was firmly planted at the Intersection—and they struck gold because of it.
This was no accident. Professor Leon Cooper, who pioneered the brain science research efforts at Brown University, made a special point of bringing together a wide range of disciplines to understand the human mind.4
Cooper himself has a broad set of interests. When he received the Nobel Prize for his work in solid-state physics, almost three decades before the “mind-reading” experiment, he had already switched fields once. He had moved into brain science and founded, among other things, Nestor, Inc., one of the very first neural networking companies in the United States.5
Cooper had witnessed the awesome benefits of bringing different fields together and made it an essential part of the Brain Science Program’s strategy. “Brain research is different [from] pure physics research. The nature of the beast is that you have to put together a different kind of team,” Cooper told me one afternoon. “Our interdisciplinary approach sets us apart and gives us a chance to lead new discovery in this area.” The mind-reading experiment is an excellent example of what he was talking about.6
The team had in this case managed to “eavesdrop” on the part of the brain that plans motion. Tiny implanted electrodes read signals from the monkey’s brain cells, which a computer deciphered through advanced statistical techniques. What was once a lot of incomprehensible data from the brain could now be translated into what the monkey was thinking. As a result, the team could turn thoughts into action in real time. This incredible breakthrough was a result of different
people from different fields coming together to find a place for their ideas to meet, collide, and build on each other.
The implications of the discovery are enormous. “This implant is potentially one that is very suitable for humans,” says Mijail Serruya. “It shows enough promise that we think it could ultimately be hooked up via a computer to a paralyzed patient to restore that individual’s interaction with the environment.” Looking into the future, Serruya says, a prosthetic arm that moves by thoughts alone is no longer just a sci-fi dream.7
Today the Brain Science Program, now headed by John Donoghue, consists of researchers in the cognitive sciences, neuroscience, computer science, biology, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, physics, and mathematics. Both Donoghue and Cooper believe it is critical to step into the intersection of these diverse fields to achieve the breakthrough ideas that will push discoveries forward. “For instance, unexpectedly bumping into a statistician in the hallway one afternoon can lead to a discussion that solves a particular problem I have been struggling with,” Donoghue explains. The researchers are not quite sure when something interesting will happen, but if they keep talking, they know that something eventually will.8
The same approach that led this team of scientists to groundbreaking discoveries is, at its root, the same approach that led to the unique architectural designs of Mick Pearce and the investment/philanthropic strategies of George Soros. But why does such an approach have a better chance of radically changing the world than any other? Before we can answer that question, we must first understand something about the nature of creative ideas and the process of innovation.
Creative Ideas and Innovation
, do we call the experiments made by the team at the Brain Science Program innovative? The fact that most people get their socks knocked off when they see the rhesus monkey
play the game is not enough. We can be wowed by any number of things, from the size of the world’s largest pumpkin to a 5 P.M
. Los Angeles traffic jam—but that doesn’t mean they’re innovative.
Here’s why: The mind-reading experiment was creative because it was new
, and it was innovative because the creative idea had become realized
. This definition of creativity and innovation aligns most closely with that posed by leading Harvard Business School creativity researcher Teresa Amabile.9
Although the definition may seem obvious, it is worth spending some time to examine it more closely.
Creative Ideas Are New
The team behind the experiments had accomplished something unique, something no one had done before—clearly a key characteristic of a creative idea. If you duplicate a painting by Monet you have not done something creative, and if you set up a bookshop Web site that operates exactly like Amazon.com, you have copied a business model, not innovated.
This criterion seems obvious, but it can be deceptive in its simplicity. What if an idea is new to the creator, but not to others? Unfortunately, it would be hard to consider such an idea innovative. Imagine, for instance, if someone claimed to have discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. No one would pay any attention. Watson and Crick did that more than fifty years ago. But what if the situation is the reverse? What if the idea is old to the creator, but new to others? The creator could, for instance, tell an old story in a new rendition, or use a screw cap in a new fashion (as Thomas Edison did when he and his team developed the fixture for the light bulb). In such a case society will agree that the product is indeed creative. In fact, most creative activity happens in this way.10
Creative Ideas Are Valuable
Interestingly, to be considered creative, it is not enough that an idea is new. To say that 4 + 4 = 35,372 is definitely original, but it hardly
qualifies as creative.11
For an original idea to be creative, it must also have some measure of relevance; it must be valuable. Saying that 4 + 4 = 44 while keeping a straight face (as Chris Rock did in his movie Head of State
) could fulfill such a requirement, since some people may find it amusing. This, then, explains why the experiment made by the brain science team was creative. It was new and valuable to a fairly large number of people, as clearly indicated by the publication of the research in Nature
and the media onslaught that followed.
Innovative Ideas Are Realized
The reason we call the team’s experiment innovative is that they made it happen, and others are now using the discoveries to further their own research. Innovations must not only be valuable, they must also be put to use by others in society. Simply imagining the most amazing invention ever does not qualify one as an innovative person. If an idea exists solely in someone’s head, it cannot yet be considered innovative. It has to be “sold” to others in the world, whether those people are peers who review scientific evidence, customers who buy new products, or readers of articles or books.
In some ways this generally accepted definition of creativity and innovation is a bit disconcerting. Usually we think of individuals as creative, but creativity really occurs when people act in concert with the surrounding environment, and within society.12
Ultimately society decides whether an idea is both new and valuable. In the words of psychologist and leading creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “There is no way to know whether a thought is new except with reference to some standards, and there is no way to tell whether it is valuable until it passes social evaluation.”13
Thus, it is impossible to determine if a person’s products are innovative if they have never been seen, used, or evaluated.
Having built some boundaries around the world we will explore here, let’s drill back down. This book argues that the Intersection is the best place to generate an explosion of new breakthrough ideas—what I call the Medici Effect. But what, exactly, is the Intersection?
The Intersection: Where Different Fields Meet
WHEN WE SAY that the Brain Science Program sits at the intersection of mathematics and medicine, of computer science and neurophysiology, what we are really saying is that the people in the program have managed to connect these fields, and through these connections they have come up with new creative insights. Individuals, teams, or organizations step into the Intersection by associating concepts from one field with concepts in another. The Intersection, then, becomes a virtual Peter’s Café, a place for wildly different ideas to bump into and build upon each other.
The term field is used in this book to describe disciplines, cultures, and domains in which one can specialize through education, work, hobbies, traditions, or other life experiences. Fields can, for instance, include mystery writing, painting, Chinese business customs, molecular biology, and the enterprise software industry. They encompass areas as diverse as sport fishing, cable television, Hispanic-American culture, equity analysis, object-oriented programming, poetry, carpeting, and movie editing. Fields can, in turn, be divided into a subset of more narrowly defined fields. For instance, you can talk about the field of cooking generally, but you can also talk about the specialties of Swedish and Thai cuisine. Ultimately, in order for an area to be called a field, a person should conceivably be able to spend a lifetime involved with it.
Fields consist of concepts such as knowledge and practices. Changing a tire can be called a concept. So can the item tire, in and of itself. These two concepts are both included in a field called mechanics. In order to understand a field, one has to understand at least some of its concepts. The more concepts one understands within a field, the more expertise one has built within that field.
The key difference between a field and an intersection of fields lies in how concepts within them are combined. If you operate within a field, you primarily are able to combine concepts within that particular field, generating ideas that evolve along a particular direction—what I
ideas. When you step into the Intersection, you can combine concepts between multiple fields, generating ideas that leap in new directions—what I call intersectional
ideas. The difference between these two types of ideas is significant.
Intersectional Ideas Will Make You Do a Double Take
THE EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST
Richard Dawkins is well known in his field. In 1976 he published The Selfish Gene
, a book that pushed evolutionary theory a big step forward. Dawkins suggested that evolution did not occur between species or even between organisms, but between genes—and that these genes were “selfish.” This theory was a notable contribution to his field and earned Dawkins significant acclaim.14
It is therefore rather curious to note that Dawkins’s arguably most widespread contribution to society was a very different type of idea, one that originated from a single, fairly off-topic chapter in his book. In it Dawkins connected the field of genetic evolution with that of cultural evolution—and made the connection explicit. He suggested that ideas, which are the building blocks of our culture, evolve and propagate just like genes. He called these building blocks memes and wrote:
Most people I know did a double take while reading this chapter by Dawkins. What an incredible notion! Ideas, or memes, compete, in a real sense, for space in our minds. Some memes persist and transform,
others die out; the process is similar to th...