Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where do you get your ideas?

While visiting friends this summer, I stepped into the shower and was intrigued to spot a notepad and pencil suction-cupped to the wall.

I realized immediately why they were there. Don't many people get their best ideas in the shower? And promptly forget them by the time they're out? This friend is one of the top authors and speakers in his field; ideas are his lifeblood. No surprise that he would equip himself with the tools to capture them in their spawning ground.

"How ingenious!" I gushed to him a short time later, damp-haired. He chuckled ruefully. As soon as he'd put up the notepad and pencil, he told me, ideas ceased coming to him in the shower. The only things ever written on that pad are amusing messages from guests.

Ah, ideas. They come in torrents, they come in drips, and sometimes they dry up altogether, seemingly never to return. Go to a reading with a question-and-answer session, and someone is guaranteed to ask the writer: where do you get your ideas? As if there were a warehouse off some highway exit, selling ideas by the gross to those in the know.

Janet Gilsdorf, MD, was once asked by a post-doctoral student where she got her research ideas. "My first reaction was, 'I don't know, but if you have no ideas you are toast as a scientist,'" says Gilsdorf, professor of epidemiology with a joint appointment in the medical school. She also writes books - she's published a novel, Ten Days, and a cancer memoir, Inside, Outside - and her approach to generating literary ideas is pretty much the same as it is for medical ideas.

"In both worlds, it relies on letting your mind wander," says Gilsdorf, "being open to the question, 'What if?' In the scientific world, what if this thing is related to that thing? In the fiction world, what would happen if character A did something good or bad to character B?" She also finds that she does some of her best thinking while knitting. Somehow the ingrained, repetitive motions free her mind for other musings.

We are in an idea-obsessed age. Every field of human endeavor is desperate for the best ones, and small wonder. Climate change, war, terrorism, economic stagnation, poverty, disease - what hope do we have except for some heavy-duty innovation to come around and save us all? Articles, conferences, and TED talks purport to capture the secret of the creative spark. Interestingly, many of these shun the romantic image of a solitary thinker, chin in hand, struck by a lightning bolt. Rather, they argue that interconnectedness - with other people, with existing knowledge - is what most reliably results in new arrangements of information.

"An idea is a network," says Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, in a TED talk on the topic. "It's a new network of neurons firing inside your brain." He cited the work of a Canadian researcher, Kevin Dunbar, who videotaped scientists in labs, trying to pinpoint where important ideas happened. Dunbar found that most breakthroughs took place not behind a microscope but at weekly lab meetings, when scientists shared their findings - and, crucially, their failures - with their colleagues.

"Chance," Johnson says, "favors the connected mind."

Open-office plans in workplaces - from tech giants Google and Facebook to New York's city hall under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg - exploded in popularity on the belief that, once the walls came down, collaboration would flow and fabulous ideas would tumble forth. (Companies also liked that such configurations cost a lot less and made it easier to keep an eye on employees.) Problem was, so many people so hated open offices that, several studies suggested, the productivity and creativity they were supposed to promote actually dropped. Frazzled, distracted employees dove for any empty conference room or quiet corner they could find for some uninterrupted work.

So, what's better, connectedness or solitude? And the answer is yes. Nothing is binary when it comes to ideas, especially not their neuro-chemistry. The old left-brained/right-brained thing that we've all heard of has been sinking under the weight of research and neuroimaging that show all parts of the brain involved in the creative process. In a 2010 paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, authors Steven L. Bresler and Vinod Menon write, "Although it has long been assumed that cognitive functions are attributable to the isolated operations of single brain areas, we demonstrate that the weight of evidence has now shifted in support of the view that cognition results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks."

If it's limiting to isolate creativity to specific parts of the brain, perhaps it's just as limiting to isolate it to the brain itself. "It's a trick to integrate head, and heart, and body, which is the lived experience," says Sharon Kardia, senior associate dean for administration and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. "In academia, we're often the worst. We say, 'Oh, we just need the head.' The wisest among us say, 'No, you probably need more.'" In fact, recent research has explored how moods influence creativity, with some studies claiming that "activation states" are most conducive to inspiration - regardless of whether those states are positive or negative. That is, depression or contentment can render us equally uncreative, while happiness or fear, by contrast, can galvanize us. How to reconcile this with the practice of Buddhist meditation, which holds that a calm mind is a receptive one? Maybe it's possible to be too calm? Or too agitated?

Ideas represent something other than what is, and for that reason they can threaten as much as excite. "Ideas are far more powerful than guns," Stalin famously said, and he did not allow people to have either. But it's not only tyrannical despots who resist new thinking. To some degree we all get set in our ways and laze into an acceptance of the way things are as, more or less, the way they should be, losing sight of the fact that the way things are began, like anything else, with ideas.

In 2035, U-M SPH may largely be the way it is because of ideas generated during a recent visioning process to map the school's future. "The place we began was asking, what did we really think the school would look like 20 years from now and how did we think our values - research, teaching, service, practice - would have evolved," says Kardia, one of several leaders of the effort. The findings are now being written up; almost certainly the report will contain unsettling propositions. For example, today's teaching methods - already in flux with online and hybrid courses, flipped classrooms, and students increasingly earning credits outside the classroom - are likely to be supplanted with even more novel methods. To remain a leader in public health, the school will have to keep up with those changes.

"A lot of people get really nervous when they think the transformation will happen all at once," Kardia says. "But if we are changing three or four of our classes every year, in 20 years most of our classes will be revolutionized without us even noticing." This is something Johnson reiterates in his TED talk. Rather than "eureka moments," ideas "fade into view over long periods of time." A gradual approach will also allow the school to modify or discard ideas that don't work. I

In early idea-generating sessions, Kardia said it was helpful, perhaps counterintuitively, to set some limits. "If you start brainstorming by saying, 'Let's just throw stuff up on the wall,' there can be a fair amount of anxiety," she says. Instead, conversations began with the question, "What do we really like about our school?" That reassured attendees that the school would hold on to the features it values and not throw the baby out with the bath water. "That positivity opened up people's ability to hear things that might be frightening and not overreact." Still, innovation will be central to the school's future. "We're looking to create more of a culture where people are able to build and test and fail quickly, so we can see what's a better way to build mastery-based education," Kardia says. "One of the goals is for us to be a little riskier." 

We can beckon ideas, but in the end they will come or they won't. All we can do is keep trying. After his failure with shower notes, my friend hit upon another way to capture his ideas: his new Apple Watch. He gets an idea, talks to his wrist, and, voila, there it is. It wouldn't work in the shower, but his ideas have moved on from that watery place. And like all the rest of us seekers, he's followed.

Mary Jean Babic is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.