I admit it. I’ve been procrastinating and because of this my post this month isn’t going to be as well worked out as usual. In fact, it’s going to be a little bit meta, the laziest way to come up with a theme when you don’t have a good one. Today I’m going to write about how I come up with ideas. Scientists need creativity just like artists, and though I learned these techniques in the context of art, I’ve adapted them to write about my Master’s project, to help come up with ideas for experiments, and to help make memorization easier for class. This ability is called idea fluency, and it’s one of the abilities that the US Department of Labor uses to characterize certain professions on O-Net, the online successor to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.
The primary technique I use to come up with ideas is based on a principle from Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit.” In the book she says our first ideas are rarely as creative as our last, so the trick is to come up with a lot of ideas fast. The fastest way to do this is to get a notebook and list as many ideas as possible. I set a target of sixty original associations when I want new ideas, but I don’t always get there just by listing things. When my list-making grinds to a halt, I’ve borrowed a technique for spurring ideas. I grab a handful of change and scatter it on the tabletop, then look for patterns and write them down, which usually gets me a few more ideas. After this secondary technique is exhausted, if I’m still not satisfied, I start to draw the shapes I see in the coins, which I consider as ideas in visual form. Sometimes I’m still not satisfied with this and I’ll start to crumple and fold the very paper I’m writing on, looking for significant patterns in the shapes of the creases.
There are a lot of other techniques that are more specific to a particular art form, like a dance technique I’ve used to choreograph dances, or a storytelling technique that helps come up with actions for dramatic scenes, but I’ve never used these to come up with science ideas. Of course, an idea doesn’t go anywhere unless you select it and elaborate on it. To do this, especially if you want to use more than one idea, I’ve used a couple of techniques I learned to write essays quickly. I sort the ideas into a number of categories, then draw connections between the categories – these represent the different points you can structure an essay around.
There are so many science bloggers and artists out there I’m sure no one believes that scientists aren’t creative, but I hope you’ve learned more about how at least one comes up with ideas.