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Lee Schneider

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Where Do Ideas Come From?

Posted: 03/31/09 05:21 PM ET

I know where ideas come from. They come from coffee. While living in Italy, I drank five espresso coffees a day and had lots of ideas. One of those ideas was this: Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation. Unless I wanted to become a professional insomniac I needed an alternative. Switching to green tea has worked but the lower caffeine content results in just 62.5 words per cup. Large vats of it must be brewed by the kitchen staff even to write this blog.

Getting enough caffeine in me to feel the neurons charging is only part of the story. The ideas have to come from somewhere - but where? The first theory involves sweat.

Albert Einstein said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."

Hard work isn't always the answer, but changing perspectives might be, like stepping into the car or into a shower. After stepping into his bath, Archimedes figured out how water displacement could be used to calculate density. Could be the water, but closing your eyes also works. Researchers call this "gating" of visual input, and it might cause solution-related brain activity to burst into consciousness. The ah-ha moment! Dreams are a great resource, too. I've had some very big ideas in dreams, and after I wake up I write them down. They usually go like this: "Mungle bubble car mouse tree bliff." If anyone can make sense of that, drop me a line.

It gets interesting when big ideas visit several people at once. Newton and Leibniz discovered calculus at the same time. Three mathematicians "invented" decimal fractions simultaneously. Does that mean that scientific discoveries are just "in the air" -- waiting to be grabbed up by a receptive mind? Can ideas be the product of a collective super-consciousness? That would mean that ideas don't only come from inside. Instead of a theory of sweat, this is a theory of spirit.

According to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love, the Greeks believed that the "genius" was a magical, divine entity living in the walls of the artist's studio. When the artist was working, the genius would come out to help. As Gilbert put it, this was a psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. Your ideas were not yours - they were on loan from higher sources. If your work bombed, it was not entirely your fault. You just had a faulty genius. (Can you give your genius a cup of coffee?) This changed in the Renaissance, when human creativity was put at the center of the universe. Brilliance was being a genius, not having a genius.

Whether I have a genius living in the wall of my office or not, I believe that ideas come from having a prepared mind, and yet there is that undefined something that makes me wonder if a larger consciousness comes into play.

Television, for example, was invented by several people at once, including a Mormon farmer who was mowing hay in rows and realized that an electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal lines. Then he went in to take a shower.

Where do your ideas come from?

 

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