January 26, 2014, by Stephen Mumford


Everyone does it alone, whether or not they would admit to it. It’s even better when done with another and there are some cases where it happens in groups. At all times it brings enjoyment. When done together with others there is perhaps the greatest pleasure, sense of achievement and satisfaction. You can do it for pure fun or, more importantly, to give birth to a new addition to the world. I am talking, of course, about brainstorming: that oh-so-important early stage of the creative process where new ideas come to be.

The creation of genuinely new thoughts is something of a mystery. Perhaps all that we can do is re-combine the existing elements. Brainstorming can then be thought of as an activity of free association of those elements until a new combination is landed-upon, preferably a fun one with some appeal. We all know about rhinoceroses, for example, and also the colour turquoise. But has anyone thought of a turquoise rhinoceros before? Maybe not. Perhaps there’s a poem, painting or children’s book in it.

In the worlds of inventing, engineering, technology and business, creative ingenuity consists in combining a need with a solution. Long ago the need to lift water was satisfied by the invention of the Archimedean screw, one of my favourite technical solutions on account of its simplicity and fun. What genius it was to think that an angled screw could pump water.

Brainstorming is a risky business, though. Most of the ideas generated are completely useless and stupid. Yet the best brainstorming sets that aside. One cannot be inhibited by fear of failure. Instead, the more relaxed is the mind then the more likely one is to chance upon gold. Indeed, great ideas spring upon us unexpectedly, in daydreaming, in idle conversation, while doing the dishes. And although group brainstorming sessions are organised, the best ones will create a relaxed, affirmative atmosphere in which suggestions are generated, without mockery or censure.

Novelty is valued in every academic discipline, business and technology. But in the arts, it is most important of all. The artist explores some of the most basic and primitive ideas, playing with those elements of thought, freely associating and recombining them. New memes are generated that, if successful, pervade popular culture, working their ways into the minds of scientists and engineers: available components for when they then face a technical challenge. We rightly look to the arts to provide new foundations for our thoughts. And so foundational is the work, it is very hard to link it directly to any practical pay-off. Maybe there never is any. Without new ideas, however, civilising progress will almost certainly halt and then reverse.

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