Ah, ideas. Who doesn’t want more great ideas? I know I do. I usually think about ideas as being magical and hard to produce. I expect them to just show up without me cultivating them, and I often get frustrated when they don’t show up when I need them. The good news is that it turns out cultivating ideas is a process, and one that we can practice to produce more (and hopefully better) ideas.
This post originally appeared on Buffer
How Our Brains Work Creatively
So far, science hasn’t really determined exactly what happens in our brains during the creative process, since it really combines a whole bunch of different brain processes. And, contrary to popular belief, it includes both sides of our brains working together, rather than just one or the other.
The truth is, our brain hemispheres are inextricably connected. The two sides of our brains are simply distinguished by their different processing styles. The idea that people can be “right brain thinkers” or “left brain thinkers” is actually a myth that I’ve debunked before:
The origins of this common myth came from some 1960s research on patients whose corpus callosum (the band of neural fibres that connect the hemispheres) had been cut as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. This removed the natural process of cross-hemisphere communication, and allowed scientists to conduct experiments on how each hemisphere worked in isolation.
Unless you’ve had this procedure yourself, or had half of your brain removed, you’re not right or left brained.
We do have a rough idea of how these processes might work, though.
The Three Areas of the Brain Used for Creative Thinking
Among all the networks and specific centres in our brains, there are three that are known for being used in creative thinking.
The Attentional Control Network helps us with laser focus on a particular task. It’s the one that we activate when we need to concentrate on complicated problems or pay attention to a task like reading or listening to a talk.
The Imagination Network as you might have guessed, is used for things like imagining future scenarios and remembering things that happened in the past. This network helps us to construct mental images when we’re engaged in these activities.
The Attentional Flexibility Network has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains, and switching between the Imagination Network and Attentional Control for us.
You can see the Attentional Control Network (in green) and the Imagination Network (in red) in the image below.
A recent review by Rex Junge and colleagues explained what they think might be happening in our brains when we get creative. It generally involves reducing activation of the Attentional Control Network. Reducing this partially helps us to allow inspiration in, and new ideas to form. The second part is increasing the activation of the Imagination and Attentional Flexibility Networks.
Research on jazz musicians and rappers who were improvising creative work on the spot showed that when they enter that coveted flow state of creativity, their brains were exhibiting these signs.
Producing New Ideas Is a Process
In his book A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young explains that while the process for producing new ideas is simple enough to explain, “it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it.”
He also explains that working out where to find ideas is not the solution to finding more of them, but rather we need to train our minds in the process of producing new ideas naturally.
The Two General Principles of Ideas
James describes two principles of the production of ideas, which I really like:
1. An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.
2. The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.
This second one is really important in producing new ideas, but it’s something our minds need to be trained in. To help our brains get better at delivering good ideas to us, we need to do some preparation first. Let’s take a look at what it takes to prime our brains for idea-generation.
Preparing to Get New Ideas
Since ideas are made from finding relationships between existing elements, we need to collect a mental inventory of these elements before we can start connecting them. James also notes in his book how we often approach this process incorrectly:
Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.
Preparing your brain for the process of making new connections takes time and effort. We need to get into the habit of collecting information that’s all around us so our brains have something to work with. James offers a couple of ideas in his book, such as using index cards to organise and distill information into bite-sized pieces. Another suggestion is to use a scrapbook or file, and cross-index everything so you can find what you need, when you need it.
Bringing it All Together
The hard work is mostly in gathering the materials your brain needs to form new connections, but you can do a lot to help your brain process all of this information, as well. In a paper by neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman, he explains how we come to our final “aha” moment of producing an idea, by way of other activities:
A series of studies have used electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural correlates of the “Aha! moment” and its antecedents. Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales.
I love the way that John Cleese talks about these aspects of creativity and how our minds work. He gave an excellent talk years ago about how our brains develop ideas and solve creative problems, wherein he discussed the idea of our brains being like tortoises. Here’s how I explained his theory when I wrote about it earlier this year:
The idea is that your creativity acts like a tortoise — poking its head out nervously to see if the environment is safe before it fully emerges. Thus, you need to create a tortoise enclosure — an oasis amongst the craziness of modern life — to be a safe haven where your creativity can emerge.
He offers a couple of useful ideas to help you achieve this, as well:
Set Aside Time
John says your thoughts need time to settle down before your creativity will feel safe enough to emerge and get to work. Setting aside time to think regularly can be a good way to train your mind to relax, eventually making this set time a safe haven for your tortoise mind to start putting together connections that could turn into ideas.
Find a Creative Space
Setting aside time regularly sends a signal to your brain that it’s safe to work on creative ideas. Finding a particular space to be creative in can help, too. This is similar to the research on how the temperature and noise around us affects our creativity.
Let Your Brain Do the Work
This may be one of the hardest, yet most important parts of the process of producing ideas. I think James Webb Young says it best:
Drop the whole subject and put it out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing.
Something else John Cleese talks about is how beneficial it can be to “sleep on a problem.” He recalls observing a dramatic change in his approach to a creative problem after having left it alone. He not only awoke with a perfectly clear idea on how to continue his work, but the problem itself was no longer apparent.
The trick here is to trust enough to let go. As we engage our conscious minds in other tasks, like sleeping or taking a shower, our subconscious can go to work on finding relationships in all the data we’ve collected so far.
The A-Ha Moment
James Webb Young explains the process of producing ideas in stages. Once we’ve completed the first three, which include gathering material and letting our subconscious process the data and find connections, he says we’ll come to an “Aha!” moment, when a great idea hits us:
It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.
How to Have More Great Ideas
Understanding the process our brains go through to produce ideas can help us to replicate this, but there are a few things we can do to nudge ourselves towards having better ideas, too.
Don’t Accept Your Ideas Immediately
The final stage of James’s explanation of idea production is to criticise your ideas:
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.
James says this will help you to expand on the idea and uncover possibilities you might have otherwise overlooked. Here it’s especially important to know whether you’re introverted or extroverted to criticise your ideas from the right perspective.
Overwhelm Your Brain
Surprisingly, you can actually hit your brain with more than it can handle and it will step up to the task. Robert Epstein explained in a Psychology Today article how challenging situations can bring out our creativity. Even if you don’t succeed at whatever you’re doing, you’ll wake up the creative areas of your brain and they’ll perform better after the failed task, to compensate.
Have More Bad Ideas to Have More Good Ones
It turns out that having a lot of bad ideas also means you’ll have a lot of good ideas. Studies have proved this at both MIT and the University of California Davis. The sheer volume of ideas produced by some people means that they can’t help having ots of bad ones, but they’re likely to have more good ones, as well.
Seth Godin wrote about how important it is to be willing to produce a lot of bad ideas, saying that people who have lots of ideas like entrepreneurs, writers and musicians all fail far more often than they succeed, but they fail less than those who have no ideas at all. He summed this up with an example that I love:
Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, “none.”
Belle Beth Cooper is a content crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Hello Code. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.