When we think of idea-generation, we think of creativity. In fact, we reiterate that illusive connection between ideas and creativity with sayings like “let’s get those creative juices flowing.” And yes, while we know creativity is a great way to unplug your brain from the task at hand so it can romp wildly through the subconscious “all-spark” that is your idea power-house, we also know that the subconscious itself doesn’t magically come up with great ideas. The subconscious is in-fact a record keeper of everything you’ve ever encountered (even if you can’t actively recall the memory). In other words, the subconscious doesn’t doubt. It observes, it logs these observations, and then it connects.

So when we look at the science behind ideas and factor in the work of the subconscious, we find that “eureka” moments aren’t necessarily spontaneous moments of inspiration. They’re moments where the subconscious breaks through after countless dot-connecting – a point inspired from Scientific American’s article on “The Science of Genius.”

The question is how to tap into this subconscious. Simply stopping your work or not thinking about a problem doesn’t activate this region of your brain. The neuroscience behind this reasoning stems from the idea that you’re brain is actively solving problems, and often arrives at the solution long before you’re consciously aware of them. Then it willingly shares it with you. Science also encourages unplugging, which is done through creative pursuits like taking up a creative hobby or (even) meditating. According to a Fast Company piece by Belle Beth Cooper, titled “From Om to OMG”, the latter has shown that people who did “open-monitoring meditation…performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.”

The taboos associated with meditation, particularly in a business setting, fail to see what Andy Puddicombe points out in a TED Talk on mindfulness: “Most people assume that meditation is all about stopping thoughts, getting rid of emotions, somehow controlling the mind, but actually it’s much different than that. It’s more about stepping back, seeing the thought clearly — witnessing it coming and going — without judgment, but with a relaxed, focus mind.”

The key question still remains: how does science compute this aspect of ideation? A Scientific American blog post by Scott Barry Kaufman, titled “The Real Neuroscience Behind Creativity,” aims to answer just that. Kaufman tells us there are three large-scale brain networks behind creativity. Our concern is with the latter two, the Imagination Network and the Salience Network. Kaufman cites a Harvard publication by Randy Buckner et. al, which tells us that the Imagination Network is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” Also an unequivocally important part of the puzzle, the Salience Network “constantly monitors both external events and the internal stream of consciousness and flexibly passes the baton to whatever information is most salient to solving the task at hand.” In other words, archiving and connecting.

For Kaufman, the key to understanding the science behind ideas is in knowing which network patterns – including purpose and activation methods. He sources a review by the University of New Mexico, Department of Neurosurgery, called “The Structure of Creative Cognition in the Human Brain” by Rex E. Jung, et. al. The review urges you exactly what you’ve already been advised earlier in this post, and that’s to “loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic.”

The end-goal in the pursuit of ideas doesn’t end with just a bunch of ideas; it arrives at genius. Our goal is to tap into that genius, learn from it, and duplicate it. Walter Isaacson, biographer to idea titans such as Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, and Steve Jobs, understands this, noting that “most creativity comes from a group of people who play off each other.” Just as ideas play off each other in your mind, your role in a collaborative environment is to mirror this genius-yielding idea free play that occurs in your mind.