How good ideas are formed

We know with some certainty that thoughts do not magically generate within the brain. In actuality, a thought is made-up of a bunch of activity through various, interconnected neural networks.

Good ideas truly are the result of everything in your head.

The problem is you don’t know you know the good ideas because the right connections have yet to be made.

Famously there’s the story of Archimedes and The Golden Crown that fits in perfectly with this discussion. I won’t bore you with the full story (you can read that here), the gist of it is this: the great Greek polymath Archimedes has been tasked with determining whether or not a crown is made of solid gold. He can’t damage the crown and he can’t simply weigh it (since other materials equal to the weight of gold could be inside the crown). After working all day on the problem, he fills a bath to relax in, but as he’s getting into the tub he notices the waterline on the edge of the bathtub rise in relation to the amount of his body being submerged.

Immediately he realizes how he can use water to detect the mass of the crown in comparison to a chunk of gold equal to that which was supposedly used to create the crown.

Archimedes was so blown away by the simplicity of the solution that the legend says he dashed out into the streets, stark naked, shouting “Eureka!” which translates to: “I’ve got it!”

All along Archimedes had the know-how to solve the challenge of the golden crown. He was an expert at this type of stuff.

But it wasn’t until he physically saw the displacement of water in his bathtub that he acknowledged the solution.

The same goes for any ideas we might have: whether we’re attempting to solve something, invent something new, come up with the storyline for a novel, or anything in-between.

To think creatively is to spur the necessary connections required for us to have worthwhile ideas. Like Archimedes in the bathtub: we may simply need one small piece to complete the mental puzzle.

How do we encourage positive connections within our brains that can lead to worthwhile ideas?

Recently Bob Dylan gave a tremendous speech on how he was able to build a 55+ year career out of writing and playing folk music. Part of Dylan’s speech gives us his clear perspective on how he was able to come up with the ideas for his music:

“These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music…

“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.

“If you had sung [those] songs as many times as I did, you’d have written 'How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.”

The expected first requirement for having any worthwhile ideas is that we feed our brains with the information that can later connect to other bits of information.

Using a puzzle analogy: we can’t expect to make a puzzle if we don’t first have the pieces to put it together.

If you want to have good ideas, you must first have a lot of ideas. And to have a lot of ideas, you must provide your brain with stimulation through experiences. The more varied your experiences and sources of information, the more likely it is you will stumble on worthwhile and truly novel ideas.

Reading often and widely, traveling, conversations with friends and strangers, watching a variety of movies or listening to a broad swath of music, picking up new hobbies, trying something different for the sake of doing it differently, are all ways to provide your brain with new forms of information. That information can later be smashed together (consciously or unconsciously) to form new ideas.

Notably: conversations tend to be one of the most impactful means of creating new ideas and expanding existing ones.

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (authors of the best selling book Where Good Ideas Come From) summarize that not only ideas, but good ideas, tend to bubble-up in environments where they can be communicated. They explain:

“Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self‒contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters…That’s the way breakthrough ideas happen. They don’t come from contemplative geniuses sitting alone in their studies, trying to think new thoughts.”

What Kelly and Johnson explain is that it’s certainly possible for good ideas to develop on their own, in the brain of a single person, but the best ideas develop faster as a result of being transmitted from one mind to another.

Sharing ideas can lead to developing them faster and more efficiently than if we keep them bottled-up within our own heads.

I’ve written about the importance of thinking in groups before, back in 2012, when I explained that one of the quickest ways to develop ideas is in a group setting where exploring ideas (not critiquing them) is the expectation.

And this makes a lot of sense when we know that good ideas are built on a variety of existing ideas. By working in a group setting where everyone is open to sharing their opinion or insight, ideas can evolve more rapidly due to the original perspective and knowledge of the group as a whole.

While you might have pre-conceived ideas or biases that block creative stimulation, someone else in the group might not have that same block and are therefore able to spark a workaround for you by sharing their opinion. In this sense: the ideas of a novice are just as valuable as that of the expert when it comes to creativity.

Even if you can’t work in a group setting, it’s important to get ideas out of your head so they are more concretely observable and manipulated. The physical and often tangible attributes of an idea in the real world make it more likely to spark additional connections than if it were to stay an ambiguous, hard-to-hold-onto concept in the mind.

Once you have the sources of information to spark good ideas (through various experiences or a group setting), the next step is to stimulate the combination of ideas.

“Creativity is just connecting things.” – Steve Jobs. Of course it is, we can see that now!

How do we forcefully combine ideas? There are a number of proven ways for doing just that. The most promising seems to be prompts for changing how we’re thinking.

Prompted creative techniques are inputs which push our behavior one way or another in order to stimulate original ideas.

By thinking on questions (e.g. What would yellow taste like?), trying intriguing things (e.g. Quickly doodle what you see in front of you now, but upside down), or embracing the unexpected (e.g. Right now try to find someone who shares the same birthday as you and compare your life story), we can stimulate modes of thinking that abruptly introduce new or different concepts at once.

Conducting these types of thinking prompts in a group can be particularly enlightening.

The point isn’t to be overly silly or even original: the point is that having good ideas stems from being able to collect a lot of information and then actively exploring combinations of that information in worthwhile ways.

Everything you need to do something creative right now is already in your head, it’s called “the brain.” The challenge is to put the right information in there and then smash it all together in order to develop something worthwhile.