Where Do Ideas Come From?

Ideas come from doing
Embodied Cognition in Action

Ideas don’t happen inside our head. We know this sounds crazy. But it’s true. Let's examine:

Where Ideas Do Come From:

For so long we have assumed wrongly that thinking happens in the head. This isn’t some far fetched new age nonsense that we are referencing — but the critical science of Embodied Cognition. It is also not an obscure area of science that has nothing to do with creativity or innovation. Understanding where and how ideas — especially novel ideas come about, is critical to all forms of creativity and innovation — so why wouldn’t we be super interested in the astonishing fact that thinking does not happen in the brain?

Does this mean the brain does not matter? — of course not, for us humans having a brain is necessary for thinking.

Thinking requires a body in collaborative action while embedded in an environment using tools and working with others. Ideas emerge from the middle of this relationship -- not from any one place in the system. Evan Thompson makes the analogy: imagining thinking happens in the brain is like cutting open a bird wing hoping to find "flight".

To have new ideas requires more than the usual resources of modestly augmented brainstorming. Real methods of creativity and innovation need to engage with the embodied cognition revolution and develop new engaged, and embodied experimental practices.

This article from the NY Times How to Think Outside Your Brain provides a good introduction to the field. Here is a wonderful quote to get you interested:

“But there are other resources, perhaps even more powerful, that we often overlook. For example, our bodies. The burgeoning field of embodied cognition has demonstrated that the body — its sensations, gestures and movements — plays an integral role in the thought processes that we usually locate above the neck. The body is especially adept at alerting us to patterns of events and experience, patterns that are too complex to be held in the conscious mind. When a scenario we encountered before crops up again, the body gives us a nudge: communicating with a shiver or a sigh, a quickening of the breath or a tensing of the muscles. Those who are attuned to such cues can use them to make more-informed decisions. A study led by a team of economists and neuroscientists in Britain, for instance, reported that financial traders who were better at detecting their heartbeats — a standard test of what is known as interoception, or the ability to perceive internal signals — made more profitable investments and lasted longer in that notoriously volatile profession.”

We've written a few more in-depth articles on the topic as well:

A First Hand Account of Where Ideas Come From

Fall 2021 at Montclair State University Jason was teaching the course Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The following description is a perfect example of how ideas don't happen in the head:

We were playing an innovation game we call the Paper Game. We use it to demonstrate the Innovation Design Approach and it's various stages that lead to novel paradigms.

I started by asking "What is writing?" looking for all the ways writing exists (we call this engage and disclose tasks detailing the matter of concern.)

15 students shared their thoughts and ideas. The number was unusually low for a topic everyone is so familiar. For whatever reason they were all locked up... could not generate more ideas.

In frustration I moved on to the next slide and task which asks the students to write something. Anything.

Off script I followed up the "write something" by asking again, "What is writing?"

20 hands flew up. We more than doubled the list disclosing what writing is in half the time.

Both my off script moment and the students connection with writing by doing, actually writing something, are examples of embodied cognition the NY Times article emphasizes. One must do, make, connect physically to the topic at hand to think, deeply. Beyond the obvious for the thoughts to flow.

At Emergent Futures Lab we like to say - "there are no ideas but in making."

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