Theories abound, of course, but facts are scarce. We’re pretty sure that ideas are connected with the right brain, the home of all those non-verbal, spatial reasoning skills that let us do things like draw in perspective. Beyond that, though, it becomes a lot like the debate on the nature of consciousness: abstract and inscrutable.
(To give you a sense of how abstract and inscrutable the consciousness debate is; I hold that consciousness is an emergent property that supervenes, but others hold to schools of thought like neutral monist property dualism, panpsychism, and type-type identity theory. Yep, it’s that bad.)
To complicate matters even more, while ideas seem to originate in or depend on the right brain, in some vague way, our language skills are primarily left brain activities. The writer’s left brain must take what is a fundamentally non-verbal notion and articulate it within the strict limitations of the written word. Fortunately, our relative ignorance about the origination point of ideas does not impede our ability to build our idea engines.
What we can say about ideas is that, despite outward appearances, they don’t come from nowhere. They are intimately connected in some way with the organic material of our brain, the content of our minds and some process that takes discrete bit of information and fuses them into something new. Because our understanding of the process that fuses information is so limited, there isn’t much we can do to change that, but we can change the organic material of our brains and the content of our minds.
We change the content of minds through learning. My primary methods of learning are reading and, to a much smaller extent, visual content, such as the TED Talks available online. The sheer abundance of information freely available to us on the internet boggles the mind, but it also provides us with the opportunity to engage in constant learning. This process of learning quite literally alters the organic material of the brain.
When we learn it can change the structural organization of the brain, increase the density of synapses (the connections between neurons) and alter the structure of existing synapses. In essence, the brain adapts to new information and learns to operate in a new way. This ability to change is called plasticity and you can read a great overview of it here.
So what does all of this have to do with building a better idea engine? I tend to think of the content of the mind as being like the ingredients in a kitchen. If all you have in the kitchen is potatoes and chicken breasts, you’re going to get very good and very creative at preparing potatoes and chicken breasts. In the end, though, every meal is going to start looking exactly like the last meal. If the content in your mind is largely static, you’re going to get really good at manipulating that content in your writing, but sooner or later, your can’t help but get repetitive.
Filling your mind with new information gives it new ingredients to play around with and the structural changes to your brain will reshape the way you organize and deploy information, old and new. It’s a lot like adding both new ingredients to your kitchen and new appliances. You’re building a better idea engine one synaptic connection at a time. My take on this is that the best way to do that is by reading on a broad range of topics.
The reason I believe this can be summed up best by telling you about the genesis of this post. As part of my ongoing self-education, I’ve been reading a book called The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. The book focuses on using scenarios as part of long-term business planning. In it, Schwartz includes a very eclectic list of publications he reads, or was reading at the time, to help him understand the various social, cultural, scientific, political and technological forces at work in the world that can impact business. He advocates doing this as a means of staying open to alternate perspectives and gaining insight (good advice for writers, not just futurists).
I’m also reading a book by John Jantsch, The Referral Engine, about systematically designing your business to encourage referrals. These two books are connected only by the fact that they both apply in some fashion to business and neither refers in a substantive way to writing. Yet, while I was reading Art of the Long View, I glanced at my desk and saw The Referral Engine. Discrete pieces of information fused in my head and I got the angle I needed to write this post, along with a title that owes a debt to The Referral Engine.
If I hadn’t been reading those books, which are well outside the perceived box of my professional domain of writing, the idea that drove this post wouldn’t have happened. I might have talked about the issues, but almost certainly not in the same way I’ve talked about them here. So, my advice is to go out and stock your mind with information, enhance your synapses and start building a better, stronger idea engine.
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