According to Peter F. Drucker, “Innovations based on a bright idea probably outnumber all other categories taken together.” (Peter F. Drucker, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,“p. 130; 1985) 

So, the bright idea is the most significant source of new business. 

What is an idea exactly? Is it like a thought created as a part of the processes in the brain? Or is it a flash of inspiration? Are there any ways to generate ideas more effectively? What requirements need to be met, therefore? With all-new insights from other scientific fields, it is time to revisit the process of ideation. 

 “An idea is nothing more than a new combination of elements! “James Webb Young said.
 Everybody has experienced it: The situation of an epiphany or a flash of inspiration, when suddenly an idea or a solution to a problem seems to appear out of nowhere and feels just right. Often this is accompanied by a feeling of brilliance or just a sigh of relief when a significant problem is finally solved. It is the consequence of hard work in many situations, but sometimes ideas seem to evolve almost magically.

Is there a specific process that helps to initiate these sudden inspirations? To find that out, we first need to travel back in time over 2,000 years to the city of Syracuse, Sicily, from where you can see Mt. Etna. 

Archimedes and the Golden Crown
The exact course of events is heavily discussed among historians, even considered to be a legend. So please be aware that the following might not precisely have happened as follows in “Archimedes and the golden crown.” 

Illustration © by Oumie-Hawa Bah

In 265 BCE, Hiero, the recently elected King of Syracuse, confronted the famous scientist Archimedes with a challenge. A goldsmith had forged a crown out of pure gold Hiero had given to him. However, the King was doubtful, suspecting that  inferior metals might have been used to build the crown he got back. Unfortunately,  he had no proof. Hiero tasked Archimedes, still of young age, to find out if the goldsmith had betrayed him. Despite Archimedes’ brilliance, it posed a significant challenge, as the available toolsets in that era were still limited. Destroying the crown to validate the claim was not an option. Archimedes had to find another way to prove if the crown was pure gold, as claimed by the goldsmith. Exhausted by his mental effort of analysing and thinking, Archimedes went to take a bath at a public swimming bath. When he entered the water, he realised that water ran out of the pool. That ignited a flash of inspiration, and suddenly he understood how to solve the problem. Entirely overwhelmed by his sudden insight, he jumped out of the pool and left the public bath, shouting, “EUREKA. “Maybe he did not recognise the surprised faces of the people walking by, which did not come from his shouting but from the fact that he – as legend has it – forgot to dress. And if you picture Archimedes as an old scholar with a long white beard, this is not true. He was only 22 years of age when he discovered the basis of the Archimedes principle.

This story leaves us with an important question (well, actually more than one as Archimedes ran naked down the streets…): 

 How are ideas generated?

 Over 2,000 years and an indefinite number of Eureka moments later, James Webb Young, an advertising executive, published the booklet “A Technique for Producing Ideas “in 1939. He pondered the question of how ideas are being created within the mind. He was wondering that “ideas appear just suddenly above the surface of the mind. “What almost sounds like having a touch of magic, he dismissed and concluded that “producing ideas follows just a definite process as producing cars. “That does not sound like magic. Webb Young continues that the key to developing ideas more effectively is identifying the particular procedure and exercising to train the mind.
He deduced that the ideation process is both a conscious and subconscious process. In 1939 there was no backing up his conclusions with insights from Neuroscience. That is different now. Research on brain processes with EEG (Electroencephalography) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) has provided us with findings that creating ideas follows specific patterns.

According to Webb Young, two underlying principles need to be regarded in the process of idea creation. The first principle states that all ideas are a new combination of old elements. This depends on seeing or identifying relationships between these old elements, which is the second principle.

Five Steps to Creativity 

The creative process begins with the Gathering of Raw Material. The flash of inspiration requires creative energy, which is stimulated by gathering information. The information needs to be topic-related and general to foster the mind to generate connections. Archimedes did not have other material than the crown, scales (specific information), and considerable knowledge (general information – evident as otherwise the King would probably have asked someone else).

The second step Webb Young defines as conscious Mental Digestive Process. Thereby he means going through the gathered information, working hard on the challenge, evaluating it from different perspectives, or finding analogies from various other areas. I can imagine that Archimedes rushed to his desk directly after the King had assigned him the task to validate the purity of the golden crown. He touched it, considered and measured the size, weighed it, and thought about different metals’ weight. He searched his records and those of other experts. However, at some point, he most probably was pretty much exhausted and called it a day without coming to a solution.

In the third step, the Mental Digestive Process continues on a subconscious level. James Webb Young recommends to drop the matter altogether, do something entirely different, or even nothing at all. From that moment on, in his view, the brain processes the problem and works on it unconsciously. That is what Archimedes did as well. He was obviously tired from thinking, went to take a bath, and dropped the matter from his mind. His mind, however, did not stop working on it and combined knowledge from different parts of his brain.

And then the EUREKA moment seems to appear out of nowhere, suddenly coming to  mind, initiated by continually thinking about it. That’s what happened when Archimedes went into the bathtub, and the water flowed out of the tub simultaneously. His brain connected the golden crown’s specific problem and his knowledge about the interdependence of volume and displacing water. And obviously, he was so excited about his flash of inspiration that he ran out of the public bath naked shouting EUREKA.

Next, the Final Stage is all about getting feedback to reflect on the idea and identify additional unseen opportunities and shortcomings. Archimedes indeed must have tested his theory when he got back home and presented the result to colleagues, friends, and finally to the King. Happy End!

Neuroscience backs this up

When James Webb Young published “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” he did not have the technology to evaluate if further insight could be gained from either fMRI or EEG, although the latter was already invented. These technologies helped in several scientific studies to build and extend knowledge about creative processes and understand better how flashes of inspiration occur. These studies confirm that epiphanies are no coincidence but a result of a more or less orderly process. Each brain has the natural capability to create these sudden insights. So, the good news is, everybody can be creative. David Eagleman and Henning Beck have published literature elaborating on the research and findings.

There is no single specific part in the brain responsible for creative thinking, but several brain areas are activated depending on the challenge’s nature. Both sides of the brain are active in this process. A particular function is reserved for the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex), responsible for higher-order thinking. Scientific research also shows that the brain can be stimulated (and trained) to think more creatively. 

When the brain first addresses a problem, the PFC is tasked with assessing it. At this stage, it realises that there is a challenge to be solved. It tries to understand the nature of it and regards if a solution is at hand. This step encompasses both process steps from Webb Young’s Technique for Producing Ideas. The brain is consciously working on understanding, specifying, and elaborating the challenge by gathering raw material and finding a solution. It activates other brain regions that seem suitable to get the job done.

A few key elements help to be more effective

It is suitable for the brain to tackle the challenge from different perspectives: Logic deduction, trial and error, or finding analogies. If it cannot find a solution right away, it is important to push on as more connections to other brain regions are activated. Failing and making mistakes also helps – especially in the early stages of creative thinking. Sometimes a little frustration is helpful as combined with emotions. The challenge can be better remembered if emotions positively affect memory performance. 

If the problem can be solved, then the ideation journey ends at this stage; otherwise, the brain continues to find solutions, but on another level. 

After working hard on the challenge, and starting to do something else, maybe driving home, going for a walk, discussing with colleagues, the brain continues processing the challenge. This is happening subconsciously and coincides with the beginning of the third step of James Webb Young’s ideation process. 

The PFC turns its attention to something different or takes a little time off. At that time, the brain also starts to change activation patterns, as seen in fMRI. It seems to change the strategy to determine if other brain regions can contribute something of value. It discovers new combinations. Research has shown that relieving the PFC of heavy lifting by doing something where less focus is required is helpful. This would explain why many good ideas come under the shower or, in Archimedes’ case, in the bathtub.

The PFC seems to have a prominent role in the next step. It evaluates new combinations formed through different activation patterns subconsciously. Solutions, the high order thinking system deems valid, are then raised to the conscious level. At this moment, the flash of inspiration occurs. As Webb Young put it, it is the result of constantly thinking about it that creates the flash of inspiration. Sometimes it takes longer to get to this point, but your brain won’t let you down on many occasions.

Takeaways for effective ideation

Some of the takeaways seem obvious and already established in problem solving or ideation processes. However, there is upside potential by making a habit of them. So here are some fundamental aspects that help to improve ideation.

Gather information on the topic first. If ideation is a group exercise, provide or task everyone with gathering information before an ideation session. This helps to activate the brain. Today, teams often meet and kick off ideation without preparation right away. Getting prepared will activate the participants’ brains for the particular challenge. It means having more effective ideation sessions.

The use of different methods in ideation or problem framing processes (such as brainstorming, creating analogies, trial and error) is helpful as these involve other brain areas. A lot of toolboxes are available that stimulate both visual and linguistic centers of the brain. Tools like Lego Serious Play activate the motoric regions. The more brain functions actively participate in the conscious ideation process, the more the ideators will tackle the challenge from different perspectives. 

Resist the urge to judge, criticise or give negative feedback in ideation sessions. It is essential to separate ideation from idea validation, which is fundamental to the last step of Webb Young’s idea producing technique. Ideation is thinking divergently, generating as many ideas as possible. Judging or criticising inhibit divergent thinking. In this case, the brain automatically enters the focus mode, and this jeopardizes the creative process. 

Forget about the lousy associations and emotions that come with making mistakes – especially when it comes to ideation. Celebrate the early mistakes. They are, as mentioned above, an essential part of the creative process. 

After having actively pushed hard for ideas, it is good to take some time off – even call it a day as we now understand that the brain will continuously work on the challenge and does further divergent thinking subconsciously. And then magic can happen – quite often actually in bath tubs, showers, while driving, or even in sleep. The Beatles’ hit “Yesterday “is such a flash of genius. Paul McCartney dreamt the melody that went on to become a monster hit. Now, your brain can produce these brilliant ideas like cars, too. Just stick to the process!


Illustrations © by Oumie-Hawa Bah

Thanks for the wonderful illustrations to Oumie-Hawa Bah – always a creative inspiration.

Recommended Literature

  1. A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young
  2. Creativity, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
  3. Incognito, David Eagleman
  4. Scatterbrain, Henning Beck