Where Do Ideas Come From?

Diagrams of Leonardo Da Vinci

In 2003, anthropologist Wade Davis gave a TED presentation entitled Dreams from Endangered Cultures. The talk centred around how the surviving knowledge of indigenous cultures is increasingly at risk because of the spreading mono-culture of the West.

Davis, an anthropologist and author, began his career as an ethnobotanist. He spent his early years in Central and South America studying the relationship between indigenous people and the plant species they live among.

During his presentation, Davis talked about the psychoactive plant preparation known as ayahuasca – a brew ingested by shamen in areas of the Amazon Rainforest for divinatory purposes.

He tells us that the potion is made from a concoction of plants, and contains two main ingredients. The first is liana, a woody plant with a mildly hallucinogenic affect. The second, and more potent of the two, is Psychotria viridis, a shrub in the coffee family. This plant contains tryptamines, powerful psychoactive compounds, which when smoked or sniffed produce an intense intoxication marked by powerful visual imagery.

Davis likens the effect of certain tryptamines to “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. It doesn’t create the distortion of reality, it creates the dissolution of reality.”

But here’s the catch: to be affective, tryptamines cannot be taken orally because they are rendered inactive by an enzyme in the gut called monoamine oxidase (MAO). They can be ingested only if taken in conjunction with another chemical that neutralizes MAO in the stomach (known as an MAO inhibitor)

It turns out that liana, the less potent of ayahuasca’s two main ingredients, contains beta-carbolines, which are MAO inhibitors of the type needed to allow the tryptamines to create their phantasmagoria of visual wonders.

For anyone fascinated by this unlikely coincidence, an obvious question arises. Davis articulates it:

“How, in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, do these people find these two morphologically unrelated plants that when combined in this way, created a kind of biochemical version of the whole, being greater than the sum of the parts?”

Through trial and error? Unlikely, Davis suggests. In his book, The Lost Amazon Davis writes that one problem with trial and error is that botanical preparations are exceedingly complex (requiring additional experimentation) and take up too much time and energy to justify the too few successes they yield. Another issue is that there are negative physical consequences to randomly ingesting many plants. Serious illness and death are often the result of such forays into the unknown.

When Davis posed the question to the Indians, he got an altogether different answer.

“The plants talk to us,” they told him.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are not the only communities to have inherited some seemingly difficult-to-obtain knowledge that resulted in material accomplishments that make us wonder: How did these people uncover this fact? Or, where did that group get the idea to do that?

For instance, how did the ancient Dogon people of West Africa develop an advanced system of astronomy which knew the movements and characteristics of invisible, and nearly invisible celestial bodies without the use of instruments? How some ancient cultures moved and arrayed the massive stone blocks in their monumental architecture (i.e. – Pyramids of Giza, temple walls at Baalbek in Lebanon) continues to provide fodder for the wildest speculations. The same holds true when considering the ability to artistically execute with such precision the impossibly complex Islamic geometrical patterns that grace the interiors of some mosques built during the age of medieval Islam.

Fast forward to more recent times. We now know that many of our own great scientific discoveries don’t come from experimentation, but rather through sudden and often intuitive flashes of insight that follow on the heels of an intellectual impasse.

So where does information come from?

Some scientists consider information to be the underlying energy tied to the origin of the universe. Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger coined the phrase, “In the beginning was the bit.” The late German-American physicist, Rolf William Landauer, maintained that information is always physical.

Could information exist independently “somewhere” in the Universe – in a “place,” “dimension” or “storehouse” – and in a tangible form even if it is not yet conceived, or known by a single person?

And when we do conceive it, is it simply just the result of us accessing it (i.e. – downloading it), either deliberately or by accident?