What we talk about when we talk about ideas

What happens in the brain when we have an “idea” exactly?

While we are inclined to believe that ideas are simple and concrete things, in reality the notion of an “idea” is vastly complex; much more complex than anyone outside the fields of neuroscience can possibly fathom.

However, understanding even a fraction of what occurs in the brain when we talk about what it means to have ideas can help us to better understand creative potential and how “original thoughts” occur in the brain.

I write original thought in quotation marks because the truth is that original thoughts are permutations of ideas and processes that already exist within our minds.

Let me explain.

How ideas work

Ideas which we believe to be original are actually subtle (though they can be sometimes complex) changes to existing ideas already occurring in our brains. These changes can either be strengthening connections between formerly unconnected areas of thinking, or introducing new stimulus.

To truly think creatively we must find ways to manipulate the things we already know.

Let’s go back to what we say when we talk about the word: “ideas.”

In their work titled “Theory of Mind: How brains think about thoughts”, MIT researchers Rebecca Saxe and Liane Young describe how your brain is reading the words on this page:

“First, the pattern of light and dark on the page reaches your eyes, and then your visual cortex. Here the brain begins to recognize shapes, and to test hypotheses about which letters and words are on the page.”

Young and Saxe describe here how visual cues excite neurons and clusters in the brain in order to determine what we’re seeing. Though the same process is true for other sensory inputs, such as touch, smell, sound, taste, and even memory. They continue:

“Soon, language brain regions are involved, helping to transform the representations from orthographic symbols to words and sentences that describe objects, events, and ideas - these representations are complex. As you build up a mental representation of all the elements [on the page], your working memory helps to hold and manipulate the elements, while executive control supports shifts between the competing components of the event.”

Being able to read the words on a page entails not only seeing the light and dark contrast between shapes, recognizing which shapes form letters and how those letters form words, but reading also requires much more from our brain.

It means our working memory (utilizing the left temporo-parietal junction within the brain) must keep track of what we’re seeing and forming it into sentences that logically make sense (which is a process itself, utilizing the executive functions within the brain and possibly the right temporo-parietal junction).

“In particular, executive control helps you keep track of [what you read]. As you begin to understand and represent the events of the story, specific aspects of the story become clear.”

Our concept of what makes a story “a story” involves many different areas of the brain activating and resting in order to make sense of what it is we’re reading or hearing.

A similar system of activity takes place in the brain for any idea we have.

When we have an idea: we must first acknowledge the stimulus of the idea (something specific such as the way it looks, tastes, feels, or is surrounded by) which activates clusters of neurons in different areas of the brain, which then check against other regions, which then activate related networks, all in an effort to make sense of the “thing” we are attempting to think of.

It’s no wonder merely thinking burns an average amount of 1.5 calories every minutes. All of that brain activity is more taxing than it appears.

Within the brain clusters tend to group near one another or tighter bonds to the neurons which are activated most often in order for ideas to be recalled faster. You know your name because the neurons in your brain that contain the recognition of those sounds or the distinct appearance of the shapes that make up your name have been activated enough to strengthen their bond.

It’s when we start to think of more complex things (like a complicated story arch or what you ate for dinner six months ago on the first Saturday of the month) where neural activity begins to slow or sway.

That’s not to say your brain doesn’t try to make sense of things that obviously don’t make sense.

There is some affordance within the clusters of neurons in your brain to activate even when you’re sure you don’t know the answer to a question. How could you know you don’t know the answer if your brain didn’t first attempt to find one?

This is the magic of creative thinking

Being able to create new connections or strengthen existing ones between segments of neurons in the brain.

To think creatively, to spur out some new ideas from us, we merely need to stimulate the parts of our brain that typically don’t play together.

We do this by experiencing new things (traveling and experience a different culture, for example), by exploring our curiosity (reading about how our brain burns enough glucose to equate to 1.5 calories a minute, as an example).

There are other ways of stimulating creative thoughts as well.

Like asking questions that don’t logically make sense and exploring their possible answers: what is the taste of yellow? How does language feel? What if time bounced noodle?

The more we feed the networks in our brain (by reading and writing, experiencing new things, traveling to explore the world, meditating, and so on), the more connections we create. It is from those connections that we can then spark original ideas, through traditional means (of simply thinking, and thinking about thinking) or more systematic means (such as asking silly questions, free writing, doodling, etc.).

Ideas are complex things, but that does not mean we can’t utilize some basic understanding of the process that forms them in order to stimulate new ideas within ourselves.

If you want to feel creatively inspired, you shouldn’t hold out hope for a sudden flash of inspiration or the blessing of a distant muse. Instead, excite the parts of your brain that haven’t been excited, introduce them to new and wondrous things. Ask questions, get some culture, experience something new (whether it’s a new flavor of something or a new part of town to explore).

Read this next: Why we doodle, journal, and sometimes think out loud

Photo of neuron by MR McGill.