New ideas are merely old ideas we’ve broken in a convenient way.
Ideas are – as far as we understand them within the contexts of the brain – a series of neurons that have formed a very real, physical relationship in which one activates after another in succession.
We know this because we can see trends in the different parts of the brain that “light up” or express magnetic energies when thinking of specific concepts, thanks to MRI, EEG, MEG, and CAT technologies.
We develop our ideas – of ourselves and the world around us – based on the stimulus we experience our entire lives. One stimulus connects with another until strong connections are created in the vast physical, synaptic structures of our brains.
Most ideas are made up of remarkably complex networks. While the idea of a book seems straight-forward enough, we only understand what a “book” is if we can understand it as some series of pages made from paper, which itself we must have some basic understanding of how tree pulp is blended, glued, and pressed to form them (or even some idea of conceptual, intangible pages). We also relate the idea of a book to words in written language, which themselves consist of ink in some format, contrast of light and dark, lines and curves, subtle marks and the relationship between each of these things, not to mention the complexities of language. Each idea relies on other ideas until we have this vast network of ideas which form the larger idea of a “book.”
If we look at ideas from this frame, we can easily come up with ways to discover new and interesting ideas: by changing any one attribute of an existing idea.
Creative greats have used this technique throughout history, asking what would happen if one or more attributes changed, enlarged, were replaced, or moved.
When you change any one part of an existing idea, you break it. But what your left with is often something that leads you to new uses, new understandings, or a new path to something wildly different.
What if we replaced the hard or soft covers of books with glass? What if we used a single, massive sheet of paper and folded it up inside of the book instead of individual pages? What if each word of a book was made of photographed noodles rather than typed or written out? What if books were edible, or if you had to scratch through a layer of thin, opaque plastic to read each page (like a lottery scratch card)?
To generate new ideas we simply need to break our existing ones, by asking “what if?”
Coming up with valuable ideas, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. But breaking concepts down is a powerful starting point.