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MIND Reviews: The Origin of Ideas

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Cognitive Pseudoscience: The Origin of Ideas: Blending, Creativity, and the Human Spark
by Mark Turner
Oxford University Press: 2014

In 1908 mathematician Henri Poincaré described the creative process as a collision of ideas rising into consciousness “in crowds … until pairs interlocked.” Soon after, Gestalt psychologist Norman Maier, behaviorist Clark Hull and others began studying how ideas and behaviors combined, and in the 1980s, in laboratory research with both animals and people, I showed that the combinatorial process was orderly and predictable and that it could be modeled on a computer.

But toward the beginning of The Origin of Ideas, Turner, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University, claims that he and a colleague “presented the first full presentation of research on blending” just 10 years ago. Worse still, the rest of the book contains no content that a biologist or physicist would consider “research” at all. Instead Turner describes a mythical mental world of entirely imaginary objects (“webs,” “scaffolds,” “bundles of thought”) and vague mechanisms (“mental spaces are sewn together”) and then uses his fanciful model to analyze, sometimes laboriously, basic human cognitive abilities and the content of dozens of books and movies—everything from the Bible to Winnie-the-Pooh.

The concept of punishment, Turner says, is necessarily a blend of two other ideas: that someone has done something wrong and that later the offender is penalized. Almost all ideas, in fact, are blends of other ideas. Blending is the “big lever” of the modern human mind, responsible for creativity, the vast capabilities of language and our ability to conceive of other minds.

Maybe so, but how can we know that the specifics of Turner's theory are correct or that his theory is better than others? He never shows us how to tell when the processes he is describing are not occurring. In other words, his theory is not falsifiable, a fatal flaw in science.

In fact, Turner violates just about every rule of good science: abstract concepts are treated as if they are real things; no aspects of the theory allow you to measure anything; it makes no specific predictions that can be tested; and so on. And then there's the tautology: blending explains creativity, Turner says, but people “createblends.” See the problem?

Toward the end of the book, Turner finally gives up the farm, admitting that he is “skeptical” that experimental research on his blending model could ever be conducted. Reading The Origin of Ideas, in other words, is nothing like reading On the Origin of Species. It is more like reading Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams; its elegance and scope are reassuring until you realize you've been hoodwinked. At least Freudian theory had lots of sex.

This article was originally published with the title "The Origin of Ideas."

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