A short while back, I asked this question on Quora. It’s a very simple question. Like a lot of simple questions, the answer is not so simple.
There are a number of wonderful answers to my question, written by neuroscientists, biologists, cognitive scientists, psychiatrists and keen students of human nature.
I won’t repeat these answers here. If you have some time, click the link below and read what has been written – especially the answer by Paul King, a Computational Neuroscientist at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience.
Why did I ask the question?
Because I teach clients how to think creatively, I am interested in how our brains can connect seemingly unconnected thoughts. Because creative thinking is a behaviour, we can learn how to do it. The more we practise, the better we get at it. When we’re good, we can make these connections consciously. Even if we’re not practised at creative thinking, our brains can still make these seemingly random connections. But they are mostly performed by our subconscious minds, and often when we’re asleep. That’s why we sometimes wake up with the answer to a problem that had troubled us the day before. That’s why we say, “let me sleep on it”.
The second reason I had for asking the question is that the question is almost naïvely simple, and most of us are embarrassed to ask naïve questions. Children aren’t afraid to ask them, but we adults are. We fear that such questions will betray our expertise in our chosen fields. That’s why some of the modern world’s greatest advances have resulted from naïve questions asked by people completely unfamiliar with a product or science or behaviour or service.
If you have any ambition of innovating, you have four ways to make this happen. You can expose your brain to diverse experiences during the day and hope that it can make a fruitful connection whilst you sleep. You can collaborate with people from diverse fields and hope that cross-pollination will lead to a new idea. You can learn how to make creative connections consciously. And you can ask naïve questions.