Where do good ideas come from? Hint: Your past, but mostly your brain

“Chance favors the connected mind” – Steve Johnson

This is one of my favorite TED talks with some intriguing insight into where good ideas come from. Where do your good ideas come from? I think some awareness and thought on when and where you’ve had your best ideas might help breed more good ideas if you put your self in those ‘idea’ generation situations more often. How connected are you? What are you connected to? Are you connected to papers, people, innovations, things past? What makes up your network beyond the people? How does your mind put ideas together?

I’d argue that the imaginative capacity that underlies idea generation comes back to our memory systems. As I’ve mentioned several times before in my posts, we call on the memory systems in our brain to stitch our past experiences back together. Interestingly, these memory systems or networks not only stitch our past experiences back together, but aid in constructing new simulations of our personal future. I’d like to take this idea even further. I think that our neural memory networks evolved because there was an advantage to being able to ‘travel’ through time in your mind and over evolutionary time we’ve leveraged this reconstructive capacity to construct novel combinations of our past experiences and ideas. In other words, reconstructive memory is the foundation of imagination.

The time travel aspect of these abilities has been referred to as mental time travel and it has been a hot research area in the past decade or so. Researchers have been trying to determine if this ability is uniquely human and what happens when part of the memory network is missing. The new part that I’m becoming more and more interested in is how we use our memory system to create or construct novel ideas. You might have heard before that you can’t imagine something that you haven’t experienced. That is exactly where the reconstructive memory system comes in to leverage the information we know and have experienced to create new ideas. Our imagination is built on the memory system and has co-evolved as we’ve pushed the time horizon of our memory for the past and planning of the future.


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