Where Do Ideas Come From?

Have you ever wondered whether someone has been stealing your ideas? Maybe you’ve come up with a brand-new way of doing something, a new way of approaching a problem, an idea for an article or resolving some issue at work, or a personal gift you can give someone — and before you get a chance to put your plan into action, you find in someone else has already done it. What gives?! A week ago, a month ago, this idea was your own special unique treasure, and before you know it, everybody seems to be doing it.

abyssThis happened to me three times in just the past week. It’s not something that happens often to me, actually, because I’m not a very, um, normal person, and I usually don’t have any trouble thinking outside the box. Quite the opposite, in fact — frequently I don’t realize the box is there, and I end up tripping over it in my enthusiasm…

The Home of Dreams

First, of friend of mine at work said out of the blue that he and his wife had calculated that they could never afford to buy their dream home, so they’ve decided to build it instead. They’ll buy a nice plot of land out away from the city, maybe just a couple of acres, and build a simple energy-efficient house on it. They’ll do a lot of the labor themselves, and save a huge amount of money that way. He went on to describe the layout of the house, and some of the environmentally friendly features they plan on putting in it. It took me a few minutes to gather my jaw off the floor: he was exactly describing the dream my wife and I have had for our family, down to the details of the floor plan! They were even planning on building a round house, just like we were. The only difference was that we plan on building a dome home, and they want to build a yurt. I have nothing against yurts in principle, but I think domes are prettier; and anyway, the word “yurt” always makes me think of rancid yogurt for some reason.


Then there is “nanosyntax”. Back in 1999, when I was working for a search engine company, I had access to a detailed electronic dictionary, and I was looking for a way to write a very simple parsing program (i.e. program to determine sentential syntactic structure) that could leverage it. I drew up specs for it, but was downsized before I could put it into action. One of the basic principles I used was that the syntax of a sentence could be predicted by breaking down individual words into smaller components of meaning. This approach to syntax is not new by any means — it goes back to the 1960s “generative semantics” at least, but has been largely discredited by most linguists since the early 70s. But I found a novel approach which worked around those issues. Since then, I have never had much occasion to use this novel approach in my work. But a few days ago, I learned that an idea related to mine has been branded as “nanosyntax” and is a buzzword in some linguistics research circles, and is even being touted as the core technology of a natural language processing company.

For anyone who found this article by searching for nanosyntax: it appears to be much more a way of thinking about syntax than a complete theory in its own right. The syntacticians I was hanging out with in the late 90’s were already thinking along these lines, and I suspect that “nanosyntax” is a catchy term that was invented to describe something that’s been evolving for a while in several different parallel syntactic traditions. Personally I think that it’s absolutely the right way to think about syntax, although I think the metaphors of “molecules of words” and so forth are inappropriate and unfortunate. In any case, it’s not clear to me that building a grammar using “nanosyntax” would have any advantages over any other kind of grammar, from a parsing standpoint, without an extremely detailed lexicon. On the contrary, since there are no treebanks of nanosyntactic forms, I expect any such grammars must be completely hand-coded and very time-consuming to port to other languages. I would be very happy to be proved wrong.

The Spiritual Portal

The last idea concerns the this site itself, and its purpose. About a year ago, as I was trying to work out with Apollo what the purpose of the Druid Journal was, it seemed to me that he was encouraging me to make it into a kind of portal into the Druid, pagan, even the broader new age / spiritual movement — a place where people could come to get an overview of spiritual sites, see the relationships between them, look at what was most recently posted, et cetera. Needless to say, creating this was a huge project which I never got very far on,; and as I grew closer to Apollo and got a better idea of where he was coming from, I realized that he didn’t really have a grand vision, and he was sort of playing it by ear. But back then, when I mentioned this idea to my friend Slade, he pointed out that Damian Carr, a druid in England, had much the same vision for his own site, and had gone so far as to pick the perfect name for it: Soul Terminal. And now a few days ago, in an e-mail thread concerning creating a list of spiritual bloggers, someone was inspired in the same way, and wrote in detail about the same vision.

A Billiard Ball Brain

Ideas and thoughts are some of the slipperiest, trickiest, most confusing things to talk about. Oddly enough, language seems ill-suited as a tool to talk about itself, or to talk about ideas. Almost all of human language is built fundamentally on a sort of “billiard ball” model of reality: there are objects; these objects have insides and outsides; and they move through space, from one place to another, occasionally coming into contact with each other. We talk about just about everything in the world as if it was a billiard ball. For example, a job is a billiard ball, with an inside and an outside, and a movable location:

  • In this job, you have to stay on your toes.
  • I’m out of a job.
  • They’re moving my job overseas.

Like a billiard ball, we talk about a job as if it has an “inside” and an “outside”, and as if it can be “moved” from one place to another. And a company is a billiard ball, too:

  • In this company, they don’t pay you much.
  • This information should not get outside the company.
  • The company is moving overseas.

A marriage is a billiard ball:

  • People expect intimacy in marriage.
  • Many people disapprove of sex out of wedlock.
  • I want to move our marriage toward greater intimacy.

A website is a billiard ball:

  • I have a number of sections in my website.
  • I’m taking this article off of my website.
  • I’m considering moving my website to another domain.

A speech act is a billiard ball:

  • There are seven words in this sentence.
  • He gave his speech yesterday.

You can multiply the examples endlessly. Why language works this way is a matter of debate, but most linguists assume it has to do with the fact that we are embodied in the physical world, and the physical world — in which things really do act like billiard balls most of the time — provides a common frame of reference for us all.

Intellectual Property: Contradiction in Terms?

But of course the metaphor breaks down, and one of the most obvious places is in the realm of ideas and thoughts. For example, you can give someone an idea, just as you can give someone a billiard ball; but if you give someone an idea, you still have the idea. “Giving” is a fundamentally different process in the two cases, even though we use the same verb for both.

This is why the whole concept of “intellectual property” is a metaphor that’s on extremely shaky ground. Most property (cars, houses, land, paperclips, etc.) is impossible or extremely expensive to duplicate exactly, and if you give it away, you don’t have it any more. Furthermore, you can allow someone to minutely examine your car without giving it to them, so they can decide if they want to buy it. “Intellectual property” doesn’t work that way at all! Applying physical property law to ideas is therefore a nasty business. The billiard ball model breaks down.

What would a better metaphor be?

If ideas aren’t billiard balls, what are they? When I got to this spot in planning this article, I had no immediate answer to this question; so I decided to meditate on it. The following series of images is what I got…

The earth has been tilled and turned, and is waiting to be fertilized. It is crumpled and dark and pregnant with possibility. Now the seeds are coming: they come floating on the wind, miniscule, sparks of color without size, spinning and dancing around me. Thousands fall on the upturned earth, blanketing it. They begin to sprout — some fast, some slow. Here one is growing by feet every second, sending glittering green tendrils curling over the garden, bursting with blossoms of yellow and orange. There is one, growing more slowly, dark purple, bulging with one pumpkin-sized forest-green fruit. And there must be thousands of tiny green shoots carpeting the earth.

And the spark-seeds are still coming… Usually, when a seed falls on a growing plant, nothing happens; but sometimes they react somehow, and the plant suddenly changes — perhaps subtly, perhaps profoundly — changes its growth, its color, or its shape. And sometimes two plants from opposite sides of the garden will touch each other, intertwine, and transform, each taking on some characteristics of the other — or they’ll merge into a larger plant — or they may even cancel each other out, shatter, and dissolve into a shimmering cloud of spark-seeds that drift away…

Looking around, I see that I’m not the only one with a garden. Everyone else has one, too. Some are rocky and poorly tilled, or the earth is dry and hard, and few spark-seeds can take root there. Others are laden with compost and rich soil, well-watered. I see that many people have the same plants as I do, but they grow slightly differently in different gardens. The same spark-seeds are falling everywhere, but different combinations of seeds in different gardens give rise to new, unheard-of plants, which then produce more seeds and scatter them to the four directions.

And I see that there are plants growing between the gardens, too, in places where no one has tilled or cared for the soil at all, and no one is watching… And the plants there blossom and shower spark-seeds to the wind, just as all the others do.

The metaphor here is pretty clear, I think, but feel free to drop me a comment if you disagree. The spark-seeds are sparks of inspiration; the plants that grow from them are thoughts and ideas and other things we think of as “intellectual property”; and the gardens are our minds. Ideas and thoughts are always cross-fertilizing each other, creating new forms, both within our minds and between minds. But we can’t really call our ideas our own: we have no control over what seedlings fall in our gardens. All we can do is try to keep our minds open and make sure that they are fertile ground for new ideas.

No Property, No Theft

If this metaphor holds, what are the implications for intellectual property?

  • You can’t own ideas. They spread and change of their own accord. You can only own their fruits — the physical objects and services they generate.
  • If someone “takes” your idea, what’s the big deal? You still have it! If they are able to do something with it that you can’t, that has nothing to do with the idea — it has to do with your physical and social circumstances.
  • If you like someone else’s idea, go ahead — “take” it. It never really “belonged” to them anyway — it simply landed in their garden by chance.
  • If your ideas aren’t giving you the social and physical returns you want, you need to (a) change your physical and social situation so that they can, and/or (b) get more ideas.
  • If you want more ideas, simply make sure your mental soil is fertile so that the seed-sparks will grow.

All of this gives a much different view of human invention, one that may seem counterintuitive and maybe even immoral. We are so used to owning ideas, as if they were objects, as if they were property, that it seems like theft to borrow ideas that don’t sprout in our own heads. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, too. I would much rather till my own soil and get my own home-grown crop than steal over to someone else’s garden and take what grew there.

But maybe we are not craftsman or artisans like Thomas Edison, slaving away at our laboratories or smithies to carefully craft our precious ideas. Instead, perhaps we are like farmers who never know what crops will sprout in our fields. All we know is that if we faithfully till the good Earth, we will be provided for.



  1. Ahh, Jeff, your words are so delicious! When I read your posts I feel like I’m smack in the middle of a smorgasboard of deserts (no cal of course!), scooping up spoonfuls of one beautiful, tasty tidbit after another.

    And yeah, I like the metaphor.

  2. Okay, I’ll admit I couldn’t understand half the words in that second part.

    Just today I was telling someone of the Tarot deck I started once upon a time which reverses the genders of the characters (I was telling them how I was stuck on the Empress-as-male), when they said, oh no, that’s been done in the such-and-such Tarot. I was kinda bummed.

    There are just too many people in this world! 🙂

  3. Ideas for me, it’s like they are divinely inspired in a way, and every now and again It’s like I am divinely guided when I ‘chance’ upon certain authors who have and something that relates or corresponds to my own line of mythological investigation.

    It’s weird because I have done a lot of reading and searching trying to gain a better understanding of my own mythological way of thinking, but when I’m not looking so hard, things just seem to fall into my lap.

    If I do have some kind of guide or something out there revealing stuff to me, I would really like to thank them 😀

    I often incorporate other peoples observations into my own work, and If I feel I should give credit where credit is due I’ll do so. I know what’s mine and what isn’t.

    I don’t think I’d be happy if someone ripped some of my unique ideas though, but if they are also on a path that truly converges with mine, then, I would be ok with that.

  4. Terry Pratchett has used some simliar scenarios to describe where ideas come from.

    Sort of like the sleet of neutrinos constantly bombarding everything,and just sometimes interacting with a mind,or two,or three.

    In the history of science,one is constantly amazed at the number of times this happens – the development of the calculus is just one example, but it happens all the time.

    An idea whose time has come could also be translated as an idea whose target is found perhaps.
    Terri in Joburg

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Lola: Wow! Thank you!

    Thalia: Oh no! I didn’t mean to be confusing. Do you mean you didn’t understand the metaphor? If you ask some specific questions, I’ll be very glad to answer them.

    Mahud, I agree — and the feeling of being “divinely inspired” is unmatchable! I do wonder, though, when you say you “know what’s mine and what isn’t”. It isn’t that clear to me at all. I mean, I know which ideas I’ve come up with, but almost always they come from a mixing of existing ideas, plus the occasional spark that seems to come from nowhere… Are these ideas really “mine”? On the other hand, lifting someone else’s ideas without even giving credit definitely feels wrong. These are murky waters…

    Terri: See, this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about! I’ve read Pratchett’s “Witches Abroad”, in which ideas (especially stories) are presented as having lives of their own, even twisting events to fit themselves. No doubt on some level, that book was part of the inspiration for this post. I wasn’t thinking of it consciously, however, so it didn’t occur to me to mention Pratchett or give him credit. And in any case, this post has extended and twisted the idea so much, is it really Pratchett’s any more? For that matter, the garden meditation I did — is that mine, or “divinely inspired”, or what? I really think these questions have no proper answer; the metaphor of the billiard balls — the misconception that ideas are discrete objects that can be owned and passed from person to person — misleads us into asking questions that are nonsensical.

  6. Oh no, it’s just that I heard stuff like “sentential syntactic structure”, “generative semantics”, “natural language processing”, and “treebanks of nanosyntactic form”, and my eyes just kind of glazed over. I guess it’s just not my thing. 🙂

  7. Jeff, What an interesting post to read! I very much like your organic metaphor for the way in which ideas and inspiration function. Reminds me of a course in college I took called “Word & Image”–one of our texts for the class was big on the way texts and media images “plant seeds” in the mind, even when we aren’t paying attention (they used a rather disturbing illustration, of a teddy bear with a “seed” of a gun slowly growing inside it, as a metaphor for the way in which we subtly plant ideas of violence and comfort in our children’s minds).

    It’s funny you should end up writing this post just now, because I’ve actually been thinking about this topic recently, too. I just discovered Annie Dillard, an amazing writer who works primarily in creative nonfiction, and I have finished one book of hers and am about two-thirds through another. Several times now, when describing her work to a friend, I’ve found myself jumping off from certain passages she’s written and exploring ideas that seem only remotely related but which she’s inspired me to ponder through my own free-association–only to discover almost word-for-word passages on those very ideas later in the book! Each time it happens, I catch myself wondering, “Wait, did I already read this book years ago, and just forget?” I’m sure I haven’t read any of her work before, so it fascinates me that these quirks of my own mind, jumping from idea to idea, are so closely reflected in the mind of another human being, of another generation and another life. Since she’s such a well-known author in the nature writing and creative nonfiction genres, I wouldn’t be surprised if I grew up around adults who had read her work and many of her ideas kind of “leeched” into my mental environment, even if I never discussed them with anyone directly.

    It’s also a bit frustrating, because part of me worries that if I read through all her work, I’ll feel like there’s no point in writing anymore, she already said everything I was going to say. 😉

  8. There are fifty people sitting in a room gazing at an arrangement of flowers.
    Though the flowers have not changed, there are now fifty different experiences of these flowers. Some people experienced memories from their lives associated with some of the flowers in the arrangement, others experienced the colors and feelings and moments from their lives that they triggered, other still wanted to smell the arrangement and went on an olfactory exploration of what the fragrance of the flowers might be. Some were captivated by the delicacy of the arrangement and mentally explored the way the petals must feel…examining what seeing the flowers produced within them…each person producing a unique experience and expression of a shared perception.

    I think the universe is not so concerned with whether or not we have original ideas because all of our ideas (like the flowers) have the same source…something that universe does value and will always remain unique to us is our experience of the idea.

  9. I experience ideas as coming from a universal source. Like an unimaginable number of radio signals bursting forth into creation. Our focus, is like tuning into a station. If we hold a certain intent or thought we are tuning in, and when we are very quiet and still, we receive messages.

    So in this sense several people can tune into the station at the same time…it is at this point that our unique perceptions (like the flowers above) come into play. Each of us will have a different experience as a result of the message we received that is unique to us and therefore each of us will have an expression of that message born of our individuality.

    For example, last year my husband I brainstormed three new dog training devices born of the experience of having a new puppy. Saturday I received a Petco flyer in which remarkably similar products were being advertised.

    I don’t view this as having been our idea. The idea was out there for anyone to experience…had we created the products they would have been different, influenced by our uniqueness.

    I don’t understand people saying it has already been done. Of course it has…looking at it like that will set an insurmountable barrier between you and experience. I think a better criteria is has done been done by you? If not, than it is still worth doing!

  10. Thalia, no worries! It’s the “thing” of very few people… and it’s not all that complicated really — after all, you can speak English perfectly well, and that’s all it’s describing — but the jargon is off-putting.

    That whole section was really just for syntacticians who find the site by searching for “nanosyntax”, not for regular readers. 🙂

  11. Ali, it’s really neat to hear about how Dilliard’s writing mirrors your thoughts… or the other way around…! There really is an undercurrent here that I didn’t make explicit in the article, but maybe it’s implicit: just because we feel like an idea came from our own heads, doesn’t mean it did!

    (Although on second thought — let me turn that on its head, since I generally believe our intuition is pretty reliable… If we feel like an idea came from our own heads, but we see it somewhere else too, maybe it just means we need to think harder about where the boundaries of “our own heads” are. 😉 )

  12. Paula, great points! The “same” idea is definitely changed by coming from a different point of view — planted in different soil to extend my metaphor. And I totally agree: it’s inspiring to remember that while your ideas may resemble others’ in some respects, in other respects your inspiration and your contribution is always unique.

  13. I don’t think of this as having my ideas stolen, I think of it as synchronicity – something in me has tapped into the same metaspace/nugget of the universe as somebody or several somebodies else – it’s not as if there’s a finite supply of ideas, so a scarcity mentality hardly applies. Great minds and all that 😉

  14. What a great attitude, inkgrrl!

    Hmm… “tapped into the same metaspace/nugget of the universe…” Somehow that manages to be vivid, despite the fact that I have no idea what it means. Awesome! 🙂

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