Where Do Ideas Come From?

At a session with a management team recently, I responded to this question from one of the executives, “Where do ideas come from?” She prefaced the question with “not looking for the philosophical response.” I chose to honor the parameter of question by responding using some of the latest research of the neuroscience of how thinking occurs.

Not the kind of routine cognitive functions like recognizing colors, the weather outside, or deciphering traffic signals on your drive, but instead the cognitive function that creates something that actually does not exist. Some folks refer to this as visualization but that is not what I am talking about, though it is a very important part of the creative process. I’ve discussed in previous blogs my POV on innovation and creativity, but not so much a purely “non-philosophical” one.

Most would agree that ideas come from a state of curiosity, which is a very high state of self-awareness (a dimension of EQ). Curiosity leads to identification of problems that eventually need solutions–which are, in fact, where all the ideas get nurtured, vetted, tried, tested, and finally make their way into reality. This process has been discussed at length by people much more knowledgeable than I. What perhaps is not (and the beginning of my response to the question) is, “how does one become curious?”  I know to some this is quite an absurd question, but try responding to it scientifically (non-philosophically). It’s hard.

This might be obvious but ideas are formed in our brains, not in another other organ or part of our body. All our cognitive functions follow neuropathways in our brain, including the ones responsible for recognizing problems and the ones causing us to be curious (by perhaps asking the “why?” question). This is old news.

What might be insightful and “new” news is to recognize that in order for the brain to process new neuropathways, it has to first asses a threat level of the problem. This happens in microseconds and mostly, subconsciously. Instinctive responses are quite different from cognitive responses. Instinctive responses can be best captured by the “fight or flight” response. There is no creativity in this.

One of Ghandhi’s famous quotes regarding non-violence was “the first man to raise his fist is the man who has run out of ideas.” The cognitive response evaluates the problem and again, depending on the threat level (which is different for each person even with the identical problem), then unleashes neuropathways that recollect past experiences, stored knowledge, and potential ideas. If the ideas immediately solve the problem, a euphoric response often ensues because the brain has successfully used its potential. We have all experienced this.

What cannot be lost here, and the most critical step in this process, is the threat level. If threat levels are high or even not safe, the cognitive processes just described are instantly compromised. “Safety” hormones are released that trump cognitive processes and cause a high functioning brain (high IQ) to underperform. This is why it can be very helpful and rewarding to “brainstorm” in groups because the threat levels are shared and your brain only needs to come up with a piece of the solution, not the entire solution.

So this week, if there is anything in your life–personal or professional–that requires “ideas” (solutions to problems), both you and the environment you are in must be in a place or situation where your instinctive threat levels are low to non-existent. This is why people tend to have their best ideas in a grocery store, or while taking a shower… and rarely at work.


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