Note: I wrote this in 2017, go easy on me
One hundred and eight billion. That’s how about how many humans have ever lived, according to the Population Reference Bureau. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of lives lived, words spoken, and thoughts thought. So… has everything already been thought?
Let’s conservatively say that we think about one complete thought every 5 seconds while we’re awake. It might be a complex thought like, ‘life is meaningless and self-worth is an illusion’ or maybe a simple thought like ‘I’m hungry’, but either way it’s still a thought. If we’re awake for 15 hours a day, then we think about 10,800 thoughts per day. Let’s also make a really rough estimate that the average human lifespan, since the beginning of humanity, is 65 years. That gives us an average of 256,230,000 thoughts over an average human lifetime. If there’s been 1.8 billion humans, then there’s probably been over 461,214,000,000,000,000 thoughts ever thought. To make it look pretty, let’s round that up to 10¹⁸, or one ‘Quintillion’ thoughts. Now let’s say that the things people think about fit to a curve of standard distribution (bell curve), wherein about 95% percent of thoughts fall into the same pool of near-average thoughts. So there’s maybe about 5*10¹⁶ thoughts that would be considered ‘rare’.
5*10¹⁶ thoughts are rare. That’s what what you’re up against when you think up something new and novel. Looking at a number like that, I question whether I’ve ever had a unique thought in my entire life! Are we all doomed to be confined to thoughts that have already been thought before? Maybe. Our best bet is to be the first person to discover something new, be at the forefront of innovation and change to give ourselves some knowledge that most of humanity does not know. Even then, we will never know if our thoughts are original, or if they've somehow been thought before by someone making guesses about the future.
It’s humbling. It’s also depressing a little bit. But how unique can we actually be when there’s just so many of us? Unique in thought? Pretty tough, unique in action? Less tough. The number of actions that people take every day is much much much much less than the thoughts they think, and actions are much less varied. So let’s forget about thinking original thoughts and focus on doing original actions. Our pursuit for originality is much more likely to succeed with that criteria.