Thinking Is Not in Your Head

Ideas Had a Bad Beginning, So What?

Cognitivism vs Enactive - What is Thinking? Where is Thinking?
Where Thinking is Happening

What is it that makes this four-step “ideate first '' model so problematic for creativity? After all one could argue that its origin is beside the point — if it works to produce novelty.

If it works, does it really matter if it was invented as a myth?

So the question is: can the “ideation first” model produce profound novelty?

There are three fundamental problems that sink this ship:

  1. Thinking does not happen in the head
  2. If something is radically new it cannot be, at first, articulated (the creativity paradox)
  3. Reality is itself fundamentally creative

Creativity = Ideas, Ideas = Thinking, Thinking = Brains

Let's start with what seems the craziest of the three:

Thinking Does Not Happen in the Head

Creativity is synonymous with ideation, the Oxford definition begins this way:the use of the imagination or original ideas...”

Ideas are synonymous with thinking.

And thinking is synonymous with brains.

This understanding is so ubiquitous and pervasive — we say that smart people are “brainy”, when smart people move away, there is a “brain drain” and one of the best and most popular websites on creativity is called “Brain Pickings”.  Obviously, there is much more to it than a handful of everyday phrases, Scientific models and whole research programs are based upon this assumption:

Brains = Thinking

Brains = the site of creativity

Thinking Is Outside the Head

But do we actually think inside our brains? What is the role of our bodies, our tools, and the environment in thinking? Is all of this merely a secondary support structure to brains and their thoughts?

Over most of the 20th century, a set of alternative traditions has evolved to argue that thinking, properly speaking, does not occur in the head. Of course, our type of thinking requires a brain, but the brain alone is not sufficient for thinking.

These traditions (Phenomenology, Pragmatism, Ecological Psychology, Process Philosophy, and most importantly for our argument Embodied Cognition) persuasively argue that the brain is not something like a biological computer simply housed in a body that merely supports its functioning. (Think the Matrix with bodies in vats supporting brains plugged into outside sources, or the idea popularized by Ray Kurtzweil, that we could download our brains into a really nice computer and live forever).

The brain is best understood as being functionally inseparable not only from the body — but the body in action interacting with the immediate environment.

What actually thinks if not a brain? A brain-body acting in a tightly connected immediate environment.

Coming from a culture and history that is so tightly focused on the concept that thinking is disembodied it can be a first hard to grasp the argument and how radical a paradigmatic shift it seeks to undertake.

Because of this, it is useful to look at how one tradition, Embodied Cognition, has developed a strong alternative scientific program to the classical idea of the brain as a discreet information processing system. Embodied Cognition’s model of thinking goes by the dry but almost catchy moniker “4EA”.

This model conceptualizes thinking as the coming together of how we are Embodied, Extended, Embedded, Enactive, and Affective (hence 4EA). Let's quickly review these concepts:

  1. Embodied: Our brains are part of our unique bodies. Having the types of bodies we do — moving, grasping, sensing, and acting with specific bodies gives rise to our forms of thinking which in turn feeds back into the forming of our bodies’ abilities. Practically, what does this mean for thinking? The specific types of bodies we have, and how we use them directly shapes the underlying structure of our thinking — from guiding metaphors to abstract concepts. Changing the body and changing the body’s habits/actions will change how you think.
  2. Extended: The kinds of thinking that we do could not happen without tools. An example: most complex math is not possible without tools: writing (symbols) plus paper and pen, or chalkboards and chalk. Today our smartphones act as extensions of our memory storing hundreds of phone numbers we otherwise would not know. In thinking the appropriate set of partners are assembled: diverse brain regions + specific embodied actions + necessary external artifacts, into a holistic coalition to carry out the task of thinking. Again, practically, this means that to think creatively we need to focus on new tools, techniques, and practices and connect them experimentally into effective novel assemblages. We can think of this as setting up types of labs for novelty. Tools/objects will surprise us with unintended capacities that can be discovered and followed under the right conditions.
  3. Embedded: Thinking is embedded in a concrete environment and this environment shapes and patterns thinking. Chairs, rooms, houses, streets, and patterns of sidewalk and lawn might seem incidental but are fundamental not simply to thinking in general but to why our thinking gravitates towards certain patterns, logics, and outcomes.
  4. Enactive: Thinking is fundamentally tied to acting — to doing where meaning arises via our actions. Meaning and thought arise during situated actions that are in a context of being co-determined along with our environment. Doing en-acts meaning into being. A cup is a cup because we use it as a cup (for containing liquids to drink), and the idea of containing arises through our specific actions of using things like cups to contain as part of a larger action such as drinking — which in turns gives rise to a model of quenching thirst which gives rise to a conceptual terrain of “thirsting” and being “quenched” — that extends far beyond actual liquids and physical needs.
  5. Affective: We equate thinking with rationality, logic and high-level conceptualizing. While we do use logic — our intellectual lives and all of our thinking rests upon an emotional foundation that is continuous with, colors and saturates all experience. Experience and thoughts bubble up out of an emotional atmosphere — tone — that is our most basic sense of being alive. Most of the time we are not even aware of this emotional (affect) shaping our thoughts — emotion is working at a subconscious and minimally conscious level. And then when we are called upon to explain our actions or thoughts we skip right over the role of emotion and jump right to “reasons and logic” most of which have little to do with the actuality of our experience, decision making or thinking. Understanding this is critical to creativity and we will go into this in detail in the next section.

How New Ideas and Abilities Emerge

Thinking Happens Outside the Head

The brain researcher Micheal Anderson says it best when describing how new ideas and abilities emerge:

“We are [embodied] social environment-altering tool users. Tools give us new abilities, leading us to perceive new affordances, which can generate new environmental (and social) structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of new skills and new tools, that through a process… of scaffolding greatly increases the reach and variety of our cognitive and behavioral capacities” (Anderson, After Phrenology, p. 182).

Reinventing Invention

How does all of this help us be creative?

Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing. Following the path of how a thought develops as outlined by Anderson above:

  • Novel thinking first emerges from novel actions in novel environments.
  • It emerges as an embodied affordance that transforms into vague sensations and hunches.
  • These affordances and embodied hunches slowly take a more understandable and distinct shape via further activity, environment shaping, tool construction, practice formation, and worldly experimentation.

Ideas — those fully formed things that are the product of brainstorming or ideation sessions happening around a boardroom table — or even when talking with others, are highly refined outcomes wholly reliant on historical concepts (e.g. nothing novel) and are  far removed from the locus of novelty: deeply engaged worldly collaborative experimentation.

The paradigm of creativity as a human-centered — and specifically brain-centered activity, is not only ethically problematic it is also scientifically false.

Ideas do not come from our brains, because thinking does not come from our brains.

We need to develop alternative approaches to understanding what it means to be human, to being alive, to how we are of the world — and how creativity itself is a fundamentally worldly phenomenon.


This is the third of seven articles critically deconstructing the concepts of creativity and innovation as they have historically developed in the west with the goal of proposing alternative approaches.

Part One we look at how creativity, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And that for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.

Part Two we delve into “Where did your Big Idea come from? We go on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe those big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.

Part Three we unearth the overlooked "Thinking is not in your head" – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing.

Part Four we examine "The New Cannot be Seen or Thought" -- so how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?

Part Five is an examination of Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

Part Six questions Creativity: “and what else can it do?” -- introducing the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity so that you can be more creative and innovative.

Part Seven - Creativity is Less - dives deeper into affordances introducing constraints and how they are the unheralded secret to all innovation

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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