The nature of randomness

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Randomness has a bad name. It is closely associated with chaos, unintended, unreliable, misguided and pointless. Strangely enough, randomness is at the very root of order. It is the cause of diversity in nature and guards us against descent into oblivion. Let’s celebrate randomness in this post.

In the past few weeks I have been considering the operating system of the conscious brain. Why is it so preoccupied with triviality and repetitive thoughts? Why is the only way to quieten it through sleep or meditation? Surely, there must be other off switches.

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Recently I read a book “Stealing fire” by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. In it, they investigate the science of  getting the mind in non-standard states. States of creativity, wholeness, oneness and nothing short of Nirvana experience. The surprising message is that these states are not limited to zen monks, meditation aficionados or recreational drug users. They describe a present landscape of micro-dosing mind altering drugs, electromagnetic brain headsets and experiential activities (like Burning Man)  that achieve those same states almost instantaneously.

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Why and how does this work? Neuroscience and neuropsychology has made huge leaps in understanding the brain and as scientists – and maverick amateurs – are beginning to unravel the brain, some of its behaviour is less magical than we might expect.  I won’t relay the science here but there may be an evolutionary reason why our conscious brain likes to chew on the mundane stuff. It keeps us busy and stupid. It allows us to go about gathering food (in mind numbing cubicles) and looking after our families and societies.

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Imagine that we could command our brain to stop chattering and put us in a state of oneness? If you have ever experienced this you will know that this is the ultimate chill experience. When you experience total oneness, nothing is important anymore. You are one with people, rock and trees. Nothing you can do will change that. So why do anything? You won’t need a house, a job or money. It doesn’t matter. Just be one.

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This has often bothered me about monks in monasteries. It is all very well to pray all day and go for 7 day meditating sessions, but how does that fix my car when it is broken? Or build hospitals for the sick?

But not all ecstatic mind states are non-productive. The state of full awareness when we drop the blinkers from our eyes and see things as they are is highly conducive to creativity. It is not surprising that musicians and other artists take to drugs to access the creative realm. Most creative people do’t do drugs and find other ways to increase awareness. I mentioned meditation but walks in parks, sitting in a quiet place with beautiful music will achieve the same.

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Mind hackers are changing all of this. With their micro-dosing, experiential events and brain headsets they can select the state of mind they need. And it isn’t all for fun. In Stealing Fire, the authors use examples from Navy SEALS who need to be in a state of total cooperation, anticipation and alertness when they turn to action. CEO’s of big silicon valley companies need to make strategic decisions when their mind is totally switched on.

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What has any of this to do with randomness?

There is always a point. Let’s start with creativity. One of the hardest things in creativity – whether it is artistic, scientific or business focused – is to see things from a different angle. To break away from the “record stuck in a groove”, to get beyond your personal groundhog day and see something new that was hitherto hidden in plain sight. How often do we look at an invention and say how obvious it was. Or an artwork and wonder why we didn’t come up with this, as in “Come on, even my kid could that…”. Not.

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The problem is that we need to break from vertical thinking, as Edward de Bono says, and think laterally. Vertical thinking is when one thought leads to the next. Lateral thinking is about unconnected thoughts whose connection with the subject at hand can only be seen with hindsight.  Many of his methods aim to spark random thoughts. Why? Because there is a much bigger chance that a random thought has a seed of the solution we are looking for than any of the old and connected thoughts which never led us to the right idea anyway.

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You have worked out by now that these images of genetic fractals were generated randomly by randomly messing up their artificial DNA.

Let me challenge you. Could a designer come up with such designs? Are these random genetic fractals ugly? If not, where does the beauty come from?

I will revert to this later.


Imagine that you could switch off vertical and connected thinking and genuinely generated random thoughts. Look at random things. Meet random people. You can try this and you will be surprised at the richness of randomness. For creative purposes, randomness will beat any structured process you can think off.

Of course the trick is to recognise a good idea, a good strategy or a good design when you see it. But that is a matter of skills and experience and although they don’t come easily, we know very well how to acquire them.

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In Stealing Fire, the authors make several references to a book called “Flow” by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian psychologist who has studied positive psychology, as opposed to psychology that deals with problems. Positive psychology is about happiness and wellbeing.

In Flow, the author describes that state of mind when all is going well, we don’t notice time passing and we are completely absorbed in our thing. He has studied the situations  in which flow occurs and the processes for bringing them about. There is also a TED talk by this author on the subject.

He mentions something interesting that  had heard before but since forgotten. Our brain has a very limited bandwidth for taking in experience and observation.

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According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi we can only take in about 100 bits per second. This may surprise you when you consider that we can listen to music and look at beautiful scenes that have megapixel resolution. How can that go through a 100 bit channel?

Our brain is smart. It has stored virtually all the images that are relevant in your daily life and when it sees a car or a house or a tree, it doesn’t need to see all the detail, just a general outline which it will fill in with known information that it has already stored away. When you see a chair, you only need a ‘few’ bits to see it. How many? It is hard to tell because our brain is providing most of the picture, not our eyes.

In your daily environment, there isn’t much the brain hasn’t already seen and it can get away with not seeing at all.  You know that drive home by car when you suddenly realise that you don’t remember driving the last 5 kilometers as if you were on autopilot? Your brain already knows the route and doesn’t need your help in driving the car.

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This is not only scary as a driver but as a human being it alarms me that I’m virtually seeing nothing. I’m just watching a movie inside my brain that is taking nothing but a few cues from the real world out there.

Many of us have found ways to close the movie theatre and open our eyes to new experiences. Travel does wonders for me. New scenes, people, food etc forces my brain to take it all in and stop chatting in the background. Other people can lose themselves in the exertion and perfection of sports. Looking at, listening to or performing art can completely monopolise the senses and leave no time for stray thoughts.

One very effective activity is reading. When you are absorbed in a good book, your senses are fully engaged in reading and the brain is constructing the scenes. Most people will experience flow when they read and that is an experience they won’t ever get from watching TV.

Blogging works too, I should add..

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The point here is that you need to overload the senses and leave no space for the conscious brain to distract you with your todo list, worries or other pointless distractions.

I did a little experiment recently that you can try yourself. If you can shut up the chattering brain by overloading it with something meaningful, perhaps you can do the same with something random. Find yourself a place where you are alone and where there are plenty of things to look at. Almost anywhere will do. Look at each thing quickly and move to the next. Try and look at several things per second. Just look, don’t analyse. Vary what you are looking at. If you look at a plant look at a carpet in the next instant. Then a shadow on a wall, a candle, reflection in a window, etc. Add other senses in. Listen to sounds one after the other. Moving your head will destabilise your vision and force the senses to work harder. Dance, and feel the movement. This can be quite frantic and that’s good.

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Try and keep this up for a few minutes but don’t go on for too long as you may get dizzy. Then slow down, slow down until your not moving and your eyes are resting on nothing in particular. If it works for you then you will be looking at the room as if it is the first time. You will see objects and angles you weren’t aware off. You are now fully seeing.

You can do this anywhere and anytime without the frantic scanning of objects etc. Wherever you are, you can look around randomly and use it to still the noisy mind.

Where have we got to?

  • Random thoughts are better than connected thoughts if you want to be creative.
  • Random attention to the world around us allows us to become more aware.

But randomness doesn’t just help us in our creativity, perception and awareness. It is more fundamental than that.

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It is currently believed that the universe was triggered by a random quantum fluctuation. Let’s not get into that now and just note that randomness may have been the most creative event ever.

Unless you are religious, you may believe that the origin of life was random as well. Just a bunch of molecules bumping randomly into each other. If so, and unless you believe in intelligent design, then life itself was created by a random force. Let’s not get into that now either.

Let’s stay closer to home. Genetic fractals. The images you see on this post have all been created randomly. The forms and shapes are driven by artificial DNA which a computer program changes randomly before the form is calculated and generated.

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When you look at these images, they don’t look random at all. They all have an organic structure and most of them have some aesthetic value. We can look carefully and recognise shapes of flowers or anemones. We can see root structures, buds and trees. And yet, these are truly 100% random.

How can randomness lead to such aesthetic and recognisable forms? We could analyse this and come up with a theory of reflection. A theory that recognises that any form that is fundamentally organic has some similarity with ourselves and in the recognition of seeing ourselves reflected in such forms, we sense aesthetic value in there.

I like that idea though it is probably unprovable. More to the point, I think that we don’t have to come up with a convoluted theory. At the root of it all is randomness and much as we may not be willing to attach value to something that is disorganised and chaotic, the fact, the true fact is that randomness is at the root of anything that was ever created. It is at the root of our best thoughts and ideas. It is the source of our most inspired inventions and art. The value of randomness is that it holds all the potential things, ideas and concepts and it has the capability to surprise us.

 

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Somehow this is counterintuitive. We strive to organise our lives to eliminate surprise and random events. When researching an idea we tend to think vertically and string one thought to the next. It is as if we need the comfort of certainty to know that at any time we are connected to something we already know. It is as if we fear randomness as the great unknown.

That’s a pity because whatever it is we may be seeking, whatever direction we are looking for, almost certainly it lies in the realm of randomness. In the realm of all opportunity.

May randomness surprise you today.

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