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Does Brainstorming Constrain Creativity?

Effective brainstorming needs only one brain--one that isn't afraid to be wrong.

Discovery, innovation and creativity are ubiquitous buzz words. How do creativity and inspiration work, though? Dean Simonton came up with some fascinating thoughts on the subject in his book Scientific Genius: A Psychology of Science where he examined many aspects of scientific discovery and the scientists behind the discoveries. The element of chance and randomness is a key element of scientific discovery. As a creative process, scientific discovery and insight cannot be fully scripted and demanded.

Often we hear and participate in “brainstorming” creativity, usually in the context of groups working together to come to an innovative solution to some problem or issue. Alex Faickney Osborn proposed this idea and termed it “brainstorming” in his 1953 book “Applied Imagination”. He conceived of brainstorming as applying to solo or group activities, but in many contexts, it occurs predominately in teams or groups.

Creative thinking means not being constrained by ideology or external pressures. These are things often inherent when working in groups, which is I’ve always thought this was a significant problem with brainstorming as a group activity. I think it limits expression and often is heavily dominated by only the most outspoken group members. But until recently I didn’t really know exactly why it bothered me. Recently I read an essay written in 1959 by the late and great author and polymath Isaac Asimov. (Many thanks to Warren Ellis for pointing me towards it!)

Asimov wrote: “My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it…The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.”

The oft-touted scientific method involves testing and rejecting innumerable false ideas before arriving at something correct. Simonton quotes William Jevons, who in 1877 said, “It would be an error to suppose that the great discoverer seizes at once upon the truth, or has any unerring method of divining it . . . the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded.”

Despite his successes as an inventor, Thomas Edison has been famously quoted on failure. When asked about the many thousands of failed prototypes he went through before arriving at a useful light bulb, Edison responded with, “I have not failed. I’ve found ten thousand ways that don’t work.”

In my own experience as a scientist, author, and martial artist, my most useful and compelling insights have occurred either when I had indeed been doing something else (like turning away in frustration from a grant or scientific manuscript and instead reading a Stephen King novel) or when I was engaged in doing something completely different—a change is as good as a rest.

I thought a lot about this process when I was writing “Inventing Iron Man”, especially my chapter “Visions of Vitruvian Man—Is Invention Really Only One Part Inspiration?” where specifically addressed the creative process. I also consider this process at work in my own practice and study of martial arts. It’s all about contemplative study, making connections and always about making errors and improving steadily.

My take is that effective brainstorming is initially a solo activity that requires reflection, contemplation and the comfort to take risks. It’s not really compatible with group activities and also completely incompatible with modern “crowd sourcing” ideas around intellectual pursuits. Insight isn’t a commodity.

E. Paul Zehr © 2014