Where Do Ideas Come From?

Knowing how we formulate ideas can help us get better at being innovative and creative, at work and in our personal lives.  

‘I thought a thought. But the thought I thought wasn’t the thought I thought I thought. If the thought I thought had been the thought I thought, I wouldn’t have thought so much.’ 

This charming tongue twister encapsulates the duality of our playful, curious, meandering minds – and our stubborn, confounding, unhelpful brains, in which we have 86 billion neurons. (Imagine the ingenuity involved in discovering that!) 

We may think of ideas as appearing from nowhere, out of the blue. But, like islands, the surface appearance of an idea is just the top of a massive underlying support foundation, layer upon layer of neural activity. Building on recent neuroscience discoveries, researchers are starting to understand more about the science behind ideas, how these 86 billion neurons are arranged and fire up (or don’t, as we’ll see) to create, innovate and problem-solve.  

Our brains essentially have three distinct neural network ‘compartments’. The central executive network corrals our focused attention, needed for complexity and conscious, deliberate decision-making. The default mode network is activated when we are unfocused, when our minds are at wakeful rest; it is also called the imagination network, because it kicks in during states of daydreaming or mind-wandering. The salience network monitors and selects, switching between the other two, prioritising where attention should go. 

The interplay between these three areas of our brains influences the way we remember, imagine, and create. Interestingly, when all three networks are active our pure creativity actually declines: the central executive function must fall back in order for great ideas to take centre stage.  

Simplifying the terminology, is it possible that ‘focused attention’, ‘selective attention’, and ‘mind wandering’ can each be nurtured? Can we somehow intervene, puppeteer-like, to direct the dynamic between the brain’s memory bank, its random curiosity and its control systems, and harness their interconnectivity? Could we even practise our creative thought processes towards a greater quality and flow of ideas?  

Although science is, as yet, reluctant to conclude on this, studies of great innovators throughout recent history, and the empirical evidence of their own methods, points to the affirmative. One of the early founders of the advertising industry, James Webb Young, concluded, as he got better at his business, that the production of ideas is “just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique…which can be learned and controlled.” 

No idea is new 

In the first half of the previous century this was a remarkable statement. He wasn’t alone in thinking this. Music historian Rosemond Harding’s 1942 book An Anatomy of Inspiration dissected the mechanisms of artistic creativity, noting, for example, that habits of motion were frequently involved. Mark Twain paced as he dictated his writings; Charles Dickens walked and thought; Mozart composed in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, Von Goethe on horseback itself. 

But it was Young who formalised a technique, comprising principles and methods, which 21st-century academics and scientists have largely confirmed. There are two principles: first, an idea is simply a new combination of existing elements; second, the skill in linking these elements depends on the ability to see their relationship. It is a “habit of mind” to search for interrelationships, he believed, and “this habit of mind can undoubtedly be cultivated.” 1 (See also, below, ‘A six-step method to improve ideation’.) 

Thinking by not thinking?  

Deliberate, conscious thinking occurs on one spectrum of the mind. While rationality is important in tying up ideas, fleshing them out and implementing them constructively, “big ideas come from the unconscious,” wrote another, subsequent advertising icon, David Ogilvy. He also underscored, however, that a process is involved: “Your unconscious has to be well informed…stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.” 

Philosophers, artists, innovators and inventors throughout history are proof-points for the single most important part of creativity: homework. Expanding one’s knowledge – through personal experience or vicariously – builds the rootstock for imagination, for the combining of seemingly unconnected things.  


Advertising gurus like Young and Ogilvy insist that creating great, novel work also requires some fun. The association has become something of an entrepreneur’s mantra – ‘find something you love and you will never work a day in your life’ – and a rallying cry for leaders to inspire their employees who, let’s be honest, may be mired in drudgery.  

The inventor and businessman Thomas Edison would have scoffed. Asked about his ‘genius’ at various intervals throughout his life, he always replied that the word was a synonym for hard, honest work, “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”. Edison was so committed to working and thinking, constantly, that he deliberately slept very little. Furthermore, he took naps in a chair, hands hanging over the armrests clasping steel balls, intended to wake him by crashing to the floor as he fell asleep. He would immediately capture the ideas that had floated to him in that dreamy, pre-sleep state. (The founder of surrealism, Salvador Dali, adopted the same technique, except – in keeping with the character of an artist – he used large, ornate keys rather than plain metal balls.) 

Actually, these great innovators had method in their apparent madness. Neuroscientists have subsequently confirmed what these two geniuses intuitively knew: our brains are most imaginative at the edge of sleep. Insights come out to play when the sentinel of executive brain function goes off duty. But they are ephemeral, and can be easily lost, drowned in the deeper version of the sleep-state that allowed them to formulate in the mind.  

Best keep pen and paper on your bedside table!   

Nature or nurture?  

Scientists are only starting to piece together clues involving the role of genetics in creativity. One biological factor, a specific gene linked to the release of serotonin, has been identified. Levels of serotonin are associated with creativity because it is an enabler of neural transmissions and connections. (This may also explains why stress or a lack of sleep, which lower serotonin levels, hinders creativity; conversely, why exercise, which boosts serotonin, improves our creativity.)  

In the same scientific book, Neuroscience of Creativity, which details this genetic discovery, the contributors side-track from the world of biology and academic research: “It is important to see creativity not only as an individual ‘ability’ but also as a cultural and time-specific phenomenon that is biologically grounded and has a social purpose.” 

It’s an insightful point about culture: inspiration, clearly, comes from one’s milieu. The foment of the Renaissance in the 1400s and the explosion of ideas, creativity and discoveries that followed in subsequent centuries owed much to a transformation towards humanism. New ideas inspired virtuous loops; art, literature, wider travel and trade, philosophy, greater understanding of anatomy – new thinking inspired more new thinking.  

Our Digital Age, too, is a period of transformation. Digital technologies have extrapolated communications, connections, collaboration – and the speed of all three. Although it is often misunderstood, digital transformation has liberated the frontiers of possibility. Literally, consider the moon landing of 1969, the basis for ongoing space exploration. Indeed, in the 50 years since, there have been so many new inventions, innovations and transformations that social scientists now say we have entered a different paradigm, The Imagination Age. 

It takes two – or many more 

An idea, like a coin, has two sides. How will it land?  

The perspective of assessing ideas, of judging how good they are, is also hugely important. It’s the responsibility of the recipient to be open to ideas. 

We all appreciate creativity, don’t we? Actually, many of us are subconsciously averse to creativity and have a bias against embracing ideas. This may be because the act of being creative feels uncomfortable, as it requires risk-taking and a degree of uncertainty. There’s an irony to this, note the researchers in a recent study “…uncertainty spurs the search for and generation of creative ideas, yet our findings reveal that uncertainty also makes people less able to recognise creativity, perhaps when they need it most.” 

Business leaders should be particularly wary of this. Bias in the evaluation of an idea is counterproductive not only in curtailing something that could, potentially, be a competitive game-changer, but also in demotivating employees.  Allowing ideas to see the light of day requires open-mindedness, an understanding of the problem and context, and some degree of participation into the process of conceptualisation. Sometimes, it also means taking a leap of faith.   

Broadly, collaboration is a key ingredient in business-related ideas and innovation. However, smart leaders realise that great ideas are not cultivated in collaboration between people pushing a line they believe leaders wish to hear, or who feel constrained to tune their thinking in a certain direction. New thinking – and the chance of better ideas – requires the wisdom to hire cleverer and more creative people than we are.    

And never forget the importance of diversity. Singularly expert teams are highly specialised, but they are prone to established, conventional solutions and group-think. Cognitively diverse, multidisciplinary teams, on the other hand, will address challenges from different contexts and through multiple lenses,  greatly improving prospects of innovation. 

Ideas lie in the tapestry of knowledge 

A Native American Sioux allegory describes a very, very old woman in a deep cave where all the knowledge in the world is kept. She weaves constantly, creating a beautiful garment, heedless of the tiring effort. She is aware of a dog in the corner of the cave, watching her. She has to pause briefly, getting up to stir the cauldron of seeds which nurture and regenerate all of nature. As she does so, the dog seizes the opportunity to pick up a thread. It shakes the garment of knowledge, ruining the creation and scattering everything across the cave. The matriarch calmly finishes stirring the seeds of nature, returns to her chair and, without even a sigh, picks up a solitary thread and starts weaving all over again. Soon, it’s evident she is creating an even more beautiful garment. But the creation-destruction cycle repeats. Her task never finishes 

This is unsatisfying only if we view knowledge as something finite, something to be gained for a purpose, after which we can cash in and sign out. Whereas knowledge is a never ending wellspring; ideas are waiting to be born, and those who will most probably come up with great ones are those who cherish knowledge and learning for its own sake.   

A six-step method to improve ideation 

Explore. Put in the hard work towards discoveries. Understand the issue at hand; learn about tangential issues; speak to experts. Stimulate the mind by being curious, generally. Paraphrasing David Ogilvy, creativity is a highfalutin word for the work that needs to be done between today and tomorrow.  

Actively ponder. Mentally digest the information and knowledge gathered. Two things often occur at this point. One, small foreshadowing ideas start to bubble up. (Write these down.) Second, immense frustration kicks in. Good – that’s the end of the second step.  

Let go. Literally, make no conscious effort. Incubation is happening, but the subconscious mind must be allowed its freedom. Do something else: exercise, listen to music, shop for new shoes. 

Boom! Expect the idea to land, more often than not, on that run, or at the shoe shop. (Quickly, write it down!) The story of ancient Greece philosopher and engineer, Archimedes, puts him in a bathtub when the solution a baffling problem lands. “Eureka!” he celebrated, running down the streets of Syracuse stark naked.  

Refine. The idea will need to be solidified. This is another dimension of creativity: the ability to improve, reshape and action an idea. In the cold, grey dawn of the morning after, it may not be as brilliant as it first appeared. Challenge yourself further – perhaps, like spaghetti thrown against a wall, it will take a different shape. Interrogate colleagues to see what they think. Collaborate with anyone you feel appropriate to improve the core concept. Ideas have an energy of their own, and they bounce higher when they are shared.  

Strive to make it happen. Finally, assuming you’ve formulated your idea through hard work and with real inspiration, push proudly for it.  After all, even a great idea, if it remains just an idea, is worth…nothing.  



1 ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’, James Webb Young, NTC Business Books, 1989 (first published 1939) 


Written By:

Gavin Olivier

Senior Partner and Managing Executive


 In partnership with Dave Gorin 

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