What do you do to come up with ideas?

I attended a fascinating workshop last night called “writing the dissertation: getting started,” given by Stanford’s writing center.

Yes, fascinating. You’d expect it to be boring and blandly utilitarian, but there were high points. Possibly the highest was when the guy leading the workshop told us what certain unnamed Stanford faculty do to come up with ideas.

  • One professor apparently comes up with so many ideas in the shower that she’s had a writing board installed directly in it.
  • Not just one, but several professors apparently make use of a technique from Cicero and create mental landscapes — apparently, they decide that different campus landmarks represent different ideas, and then they walk through campus, and, somehow, that constitutes walking through those ideas. (I’m not sure I get this at all… does anyone have the Cicero ref.?)
  • One professor “uses lucid dreaming techniques” to solve problems.
  • One person (this might have been a grad student dissertating) works best on the train, so s/he bought a train pass, and sometimes works while riding up and down from Palo Alto to SF, over and over again…
  • So, dear readers, what crazy things do you do to come up with or process ideas?

    (hmm… this feels like it should be an L&L cross-post)


6 Responses to “What do you do to come up with ideas?”

  1. Mike Says:

    If I had to guess, I would say you have little problem coming up with an idea; sticking to the same idea, however, is likely problematic.

    Am I warm?

  2. Beau Bellenfant Says:

    Frances Yates has written a book called The Art of Memory, which goes into the Cicero stuff quite a bit. It’s a neat book. I think the relevant Cicero texts are De oratore and De inventione, but I’m not certain.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hah, Mike, bite your tongue! Slander, slander. :-)

  4. Mike Says:

    Paul: You’re such a genius with so many mind-blowing thoughts; you can’t stay focused. I like left-handed compliments as that. Hey, you gotta give us intellectual plebeians some satisfaction. ;)

    On a serious note, maybe that’s why so many geniuses are attracted to math. Once you get into a good problem, it’s really hard to just walk away – since you know there’s an answer. So math guys spend years working on one problem.

    In social sciences, there is so much give and take, that an intelligent person of good faith will eventually have serious doubts about his or her ideas. The smarter you are, the more holes you will see. “Should I really continue with this in light of the contrary evidence?” In math, there is no such doubt. Work hard enough and be smart enough, and you’ll get to a solution – or at least closer to one.

    Maybe the best way to stay focused on an idea is to swallow the poison pill of confirmation bias. If you’re so convinced that you’re right, then you’ll stay focused.

    I wonder what the correlation between people who stick to a theory and their degree of confirmation bias. Figuring that out would be horribly subjective. In my experience, though, people who are convinced of a theory’s truth are really hard to talk to, since it seems that you can’t reason with them. They ignore everything you throw at them, or come up with weak distinctions.

  5. Alex Gregory Says:

    I write. Just give yourself a question, begin to answer it, and see what ideas pop into your head as you go. You’ll find you need to rewrite more than once if you want to actually do anything with the finished product, because the overall structure of the piece is bound to be awful if you don’t do any preplanning. But writing definately helps me come up with ideas and to organise them together.

    A related trick: If I don’t understand something, I compose an email to my supervisor/tutor asking them to help me out. It doesn’t matter much who you’re sending it to, but it has to be someone whose time you don’t want to waste so that you are very precise and careful in the formulaton of your confusion. But the trick is that I never actually send it: Explaining very carefully what it is that I don’t understand always seems to clear up my confusion.

    (The last, as you might imagine, was discovered when I *really* hadn’t understood something for days, then finally grasped it as I composed the email pleading for help.)


  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    That e-mail thing has actually worked a few times for me too, now that you mention it!

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