What does Harold and the Purple Crayon have in common with a talking snake? They both represent examples of blending: a theory about how our brains make culture.
Mark Turner, in his new book The Origin of Ideas: Blending, Creativity, and the Human Spark, describes, in a wealth of fascinating detail, his view that humans are innovative and good at creative thinking due to the ability of our brains to blend two or more ideas and create a new idea. Only when evolution gave us brains with this new ability could we make vast cultural advances.
In an engaging chapter entitled “Forbidden Ideas,” Turner, Institute Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University, explores how blending is a necessary skill in creating stories, such as that of “a supernatural talking snake who deforms the future of humankind.”
Also, every time we’re doing one thing while thinking about or remembering some other event, we’re making use of this blending facility. Turner writes,
Remarkably, someone who is inhabiting the real story of the present and who is simultaneously remembering a different story can partition them, so as to monitor each without becoming confused about which items belong to which stories.
Using well-known children’s books like The Runaway Bunny (about an almost scarily overprotective mommy bunny) and, one of my personal favorites, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Turner demonstrates how the mind’s ability to blend what would seem to be incompatible ideas begins when children are quite young.
While The Origin of Ideas is not a simple book, and the concept of blending is much more sophisticated than it may seem initially, Turner leads the reader step by step, using familiar concepts to enhance understanding of those more complex.
If you’re intrigued by how creativity happens, this smoothly written volume should be in your collection. There’s also an appendix aimed at academics.
Copyright (2014) by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel