Brainstorming and Related Techniques
Suppose you are supposed to solve a hard problem.
It could be a mathematics problem, a literary problem, a political
problem, a family relations problem, or a business problem.
Your usual strategy is often to find some similar problem that you
know how to solve, and model that solution.
But what if this is a new kind of problem, or at least a problem
of a sort you don't know how to solve?
Problems like this come up all the time in real life as well as
school, so let's take a look at how they get solved.
Many solutions start with an idea for a solution, so one of the
first questions is: how does one get an idea?
While it is true that some people simply get more ideas than other
people, there are ways to get ideas.
These methods are based on
of ideas to get new ideas.
There are two critical principles to keep in mind:
For several thousand years, writers, philosophers, scientists, and
artists have developed a variety of techniques to develop ideas,
mostly by combining things.
Here is a small sample.
Write things down.
An idea left buzzing around one's head is harder to evaluate,
and can easily fly away.
In addition, since these techniques are based on combining ideas,
having many ideas, notions, and facts written down in front of
you gives you a better frame of reference to work in.
This is not the time for criticism.
Write everything down, and take everything seriously, no matter
how silly or embarrassing.
After all, you can always use your notes as kindling, but if
you don't write something down, it is more difficult to use
and more easily lost.
A number of the oldest techniques are actually exercises developed
by writers to deal with Writers' Block.
Many of these techniques are based on the following premisses:
There are several popular ways of writing things down.
Here are two.
The problem in Writers' Block is that people don't know what to
do, and they need ideas, notions, etc.
Ideas buzzing around one's head are not as good as ideas on
paper: ideas should be written down in an accessible and
Oh, yes, keep a journal, and write your ideas down in it.
Writed down each idea on a card, perhaps with reference numbers
on it so it can be located when filed in a card box.
This allows you to take the cards out and rearrange them at
will, and still put them back in a compact form.
Both James Joyce and Emily Dickenson kept notes on little
scraps of paper, which they carried around on them, and
came up with the periodic table by writing down the names of
the elements, with densities and other properties, on cards,
and then seeing how he could arrange the cards to get a
pattern that ran both horizontally and vertically.
Many historians report keeping all their facts on index cards,
from which they write their books.
The advantage is that, psychologically speaking, it isn't as
hard to write something down on a card, and once the cards
are arranged (something not too hard to do), the cards can
then inspire the prose that encompasses them.
While Joyce was writing on scraps of paper, his French counterpart,
Marcel Proust, wrote on huge sheets of paper.
If you are up to using up huge amounts of paper (pulp newsprint
paper is relatively cheap), this can be helpful.
The idea is that you can write words, phrases, paragraphs, on
a large sheet that is a sort of picture, with lines, doodles,
and other connections between them.
This method for coming up with connections between ideas has
been popularized by
a movement in cognitive science, and in writing by
To get started, open up a pad of newsprint, and write down
words that flit across your mind's eye, drawing connections
between those that somehow (causally, logically, emotionally,
etc.) are related (perhaps you can label the connecting
This has become a popular method, and there are many
devoted to variations of it.
Classical brainstorming became popular during the 1950s, and the
stereotype was of a bunch of advertizers cooking up ideas for a
new slogan to sell margarine.
Originally, a "brainstorm" referred to an acute psychological
attack, but in 1920s - 1940s, there were references to "brainstorms"
as brilliant ideas (apparently these were originally called
"brain waves"); and this may have led the use of the term
by the advertizing firm Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn in
launching "brainstorming sessions," which were described in a
1955 Business Week article as "free-wheeling sessions that encourage
wild ideas but prohibit any evaluation or discussion until the session
Members of the firm soon took the technique to
creativity research and education,
and it has been a popular technique ever since.
Originally, brainstorming referred to a social activity:
In the process, several threads of ideas might appear: someone
thinks of margarine as sensuous, someone else suggests sex, then
someone suggests marriage, and ultimately margarine as the
perfect wedding present.
There are several variations (notice that there are many webpages
on "brainstorming"), which you can try.
One needs a group of people with a common interest, e.g., a
desire for a new slogan to sell margarine.
The group should not be so large that some participants can
hide or be left out: probably no more than ten people.
The outcome of the brainstorming session will be ideas for
beginning work, not a finished product (e.g., ideas for
selling margarine, but not a polished slogan ready to try on
Since ideas are important, at least one person should keep notes.
Since ideas can come to anyone, rank and status are left outside,
and everyone is to be treated comparably.
Since generating ideas is the goal -- evaluating the ideas
generated comes later -- participants should refrain from
Since this is a group effort, the group should begin with the
understanding that credit for any successful ideas goes to the
group as a whole.
Several references recommend a time limit, from five to twenty
minutes, depending on the participants (less than five for
little kids, at least twenty for big business executives).
There should be at least one disreputable method on this page, so
this is it.
"Automatic writing" was popularized by Catherine Elise Muller, a.k.a.
a Nineteenth century
who channelled a spirit called "Leopold" (once identified as an Eighteenth
century juggler) who had visited Mars via some kind of astral projection.
Leopold and other spirits communicated to Mlle. Smith by having her write
under their influence.
While this was not the first time this method was used by mediums, she
was its great popularizer.
But after it became clear that everything Mlle. Smith wrote came from
somewhere in the depths of her own mind, the method attracted attention
from other quarters.
The basic idea is simple.
Sit down at a comfortable place, with pad of paper or typewriter or whatever
feels most natural, and ... write.
Write about everything and anything, about what you had for breakfast, about
your plans for tomorrow, about your homework, about current foreign policy,
and just follow your pen.
It is not hard to see that once started, one can keep going --- and that one
may be quite surprised by what one finds on one's paper.
It is not surprising that non-Occultists would become interested in the
Still, it is not as respectable as other techniques, and should be
approached with care (if you are the sort who is nervous around
And don't forget the metaphor of the mind as a ship: in automatic
writing, one has handed over the ship's log to the bridge crew to
doodle what they would, and one should take the results in that spirit
(no pun intended).
Of course, the Freudians would be interested.
relies on the association of interconnected ideas to track down what is
disturbing a patient, and so automatic writing became one of the tools
used in Freudian and neo-Freudian psychotherapy.
Where Freud would go, the
would be sure to follow.
The Surrealists composed those dream landscapes that associate
strange things (lobsters and telephones, melting watches, etc.),
and they developed a number of "automatic" techniques to get ideas
for their art.
Soon writers starting teaching
which is rather controversial.
No one doubts that it helps writers overcome blocks, or that it helps
aspiring writers get started.
But the lack of control can be disconcerting (some have even said
dangerous), as astonished practitioners can look at what flowed out
of their pens and they ask, "Did I write that?"
Well, it depends on whether you are someone willing and able to look
in a mirror now and then.
Stifling the Editor
These are only three of the techniques, but they should give an idea
of the kinds of things you want to do.
When starting off, you are aiming for quantity, not quality.
Quality arises from the interaction of selection, modification, and
revision on a large array of initial materials, so what you need
at the beginning is a large array of initial materials.
That means that it is necessary to stifle all critics, both internal
Promise you'll get back to them, tell them to go away, ignore them,
but somehow get them out of the picture.
This is just the first step; the ultimate result may not resemble
any of these ideas, which are only the places to begin.