Where Do Ideas Come From?

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question lobbed at artists as if it’s a perfectly reasonable and easy question to answer. It’s usually asked with the same matter-of-factness as: “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” It’s an intriguing question (the idea one, not the breakfast one, though I suppose it depends on how creative you get with your breakfast). But whenever I’m asked it, I’m usually at a loss and offer some vague explanation about my general interests. So I figured it might be a good thought experiment. What if I could travel into my brain and see where my ideas come from? Bear with me for a moment…

I close my eyes. Take a couple deep breaths. I imagine I’m in a tiny spaceship, like in “Fantastic Voyage” or the ’80’s quasi-remake “Innerspace” or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” ship… Anyway, I zoom along while electrical charges go off all around me. I have to steer the ship, zigging and zagging so I don’t get zapped by all these synapses firing in my brain! I emerge from the brian storm and spot a nice, clear spot to park my ship. I hop out and stretch my legs. The ground feels squishy beneath my feet, like those pseudo asphalt ground coverings at playgrounds. I look out over the vast network of crevasses that make up my brain. It’s like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon gazing out for what appears to be an eternity. Then something catches my eye. It’s a small bird carrying a closed shell. It drops the shell hundreds of feet and the shell bounces against the brain tissue. As it ascends back towards me the shell splits open and thousands of glittering orbs sprinkle on and around me like confetti and suddenly, an idea comes to me…

So I’m pretty sure that’s not how it technically works, but it’s fun to imagine. And while it might be an entertaining allegory for where inspiration comes from, maybe there’s a more grounded explanation.

In my experience, the creative process is sort of a chicken vs. egg situation — does the idea come first, then you start the creative process? Or is it because you are in the midst of the creative process, that new ideas spring forth? It’s a little bit of both, but more often for me the ideas flow once I’m already engaged in the creative process. While an initial spark of an idea might come while I’m in the shower, or taking my dog for a walk, it’s always a fleeting moment and if I don’t write myself a note about the idea, I often forget it.

So ideas aren’t worth much if they’re not followed up. And usually the follow-up involves a lot of work — examining the initial idea, asking questions and coming up with new ideas, then actually executing those ideas into a form that can be shared out in the world. There’s a great book about the creative process called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. In it, he lays out how the obstacle to creativity is resistance, both internal and external. Often resistance comes in the form of our own inner voice saying, “I’m not talented enough”, “I’m not smart enough”, “What if I fail?”, “What will others think of my idea?” And on top of that, there are external forms of resistance — organizations or people who aren’t interested in your work. The only solution? Do the work, as Pressfield urges. And I’ve found this to work in my own life. For example, writing this blog. There were plenty of negative thoughts trying to prevent me from writing, but once I shut off those voices and started writing, the resistance began to fade and the words began to flow. Imagine it like a river that’s dammed with sticks and logs. The water is stuck. But just remove one stick, and some water starts to get through. Take out a few more, and soon you have a flowing river again.

So are we any closer to figuring out where ideas come from? We’ve got magical birds in the brain (not too likely) and sitting down and doing the work (much more likely). Let’s take a look at what current neuroscience research knows about creativity.

I was really intrigued by this article in Scientific American. Here’s my layman’s understanding of it. Basically, the idea that right-brained people are more creative has come into question. When engaged in the creative process, our brain uses three different networks, to varying degrees. They’re called the Executive Attention, Imagination, and Salience Networks. Yes, there is an actual Imagination Network in our brains! (That must be where I landed my ship during my thought experiment.) The study of this stuff is still early and there’s a lot neuroscientists don’t know yet. Maybe there will be a day where we can take an MRI scan of our brain and know exactly where a certain idea had its genesis. Though I suppose that would take some of the magic out of making art.

So for now, I’ll be content not knowing exactly where my ideas come from, but confident that if I keep doing the creative work, the ideas will keep showing up. I’ll let my brain networks handle the rest.