Ideation – How History’s Greatest Thinkers Had Their Best Ideas

By on August 13, 2019

If there really was a smart pill that could transform your brain to reach its full potential, what would you hope it would be like? For me, it would encourage ideation.

It would be something that could trigger amazing ideas and insight. Because more than being able to do fast mental arithmetic, or being able to reel off huge lists of facts; having great ideas is what can really change your life.

If you have a truly amazing idea, it could help you to become extraordinarily rich – or to change the course of human understanding.

Having great ideas (this is what ideation means) makes you sharp and formidable in any business meeting – as you can quickly pitch new concepts and make connections others miss. It helps you to enjoy leisure time in more creative and memorable ways. And if you have a truly amazing idea, it could help you to become extraordinarily rich – or to change the course of human understanding.

True genius is not mastery of a subject – but the ability to totally shift the paradigm.

In this post, I’ll be breaking down moments of ideation: the stories of great thinkers who had game-changing ideas. I’ll also be looking at what’s going on inside the brain, and what we can all do to nurture this skill.

Letting the Mind Wander

So, why not start with Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity? As these are two ideas that have arguably shaped the world more than any others. And they are also two moments of ideation we know a lot about.

Special relativity was Einstein’s first stab at the theory, and he reportedly came up with the idea while working in a patent office between 1905 and 1907. It’s often been suggested that it was the repetitive busywork of ticking off patents – and perhaps exposure to all those unique ideas – that allowed his creative juices to flow. As we’ll see, this is key to ideation.

As the brain relaxes, so the pattern of brain activity becomes more dispersed – because our attention isn’t sharply focussed on just one sense, or one problem. As neurons fire at different parts of the brain, novel connections can be formed, which in turn can provide useful new insights. They say that new ideas are simply combinations of older, existing ideas. In The Break-Out Principle, authors Herbert Benson and William Proctor describe the biochemicals associated with creativity, including dopamine, endorphins, and nitric oxide. I’m particularly interested in the latter, as one of its roles is making far-reaching neurons fire in unison.

As the brain relaxes, so the pattern of brain activity becomes more disperse

This is why you cannot ‘force’ an idea, and will often find the solutions to problems precisely when you take a break from that work. As a programmer, I regularly fix the issue I’ve been struggling over when I take a toilet break. Here is an interesting article in Nature that explains this in more depth. Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin not by scrawling biochemical equations on a chalkboard, but by playing around by painting ballerinas with bacteria.

Many of us find that our most creative ideas happen when we’re in the shower, or walking. This is similarly a state where we’re just “busy enough” to keep our bodies busy, while our mind can wonder and activate the “default mode network” – brain areas associated with imagination and planning, which kick into gear when we have no other pressing tasks. This network of brain areas is also sometimes referred to as the “imagination network.” For our purposes, it is effectively an ideation network!

So many people preach the importance of “being in the now,” and “living in the moment.” In fact though, healthy daydreaming can be extremely useful, and is one of the things that makes us uniquely human. And it is crucial for ideation.

Visualization and Visual Cues for Ideation

One of the best ways to activate your default mode network is walking. And ideally: walking in nature which has the added benefit of providing relaxing and calming stimuli in the form of fauna.

Walking is actually responsible for many great ideas throughout history. Fellow genius Nikola Tesla for instance came up with the idea of alternating current (AC), while walking with others. He reportedly used his walking stick to illustrate the idea to them as they walked. Nietzsche once said that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Steve Jobs was known for taking long walks. Countless writers from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to William Blake, to Wordsworth all used walking to tap into their creativity.

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking

Frederich Nietzsche

And it was while letting his mind wander, that Einstein had the moment of ideation and “happiest thought of his life” – when he imagined what someone would see when falling from a roof while holding an object. He realized that from the perspective of the individual, there would be no gravity. Should they let go of the object, it would appear to float next to them, as it fell at the same speed. Apart from anything else, you don’t have time to imagine people falling off roof-tops when you’re hard at work. Ideation requires space.

This is why companies like Google are so keen for their employees to take time off to work on their own projects – without pressure or stress. Perhaps they should encourage staff to go on long walks instead? Either way, by playing and relaxing, you allow the brain to enter a freer form of thinking.

But the other unique aspect of Einstein’s eureka moment and of the default mode network is the visualization. Einstein visually understood relativity before putting it into words.

Einstein's brain
Einstein’s brain may have been uniquely suited to ideation!

Now that we have the luxury of being able to examine Einstein’s brain, we know that it had some unique anomalies – a thicker bundle of neurons connecting the two hemispheres (called the corpus callosum) and larger inferior parietal lobes – which are involved in visualization and spatial/mathematical reasoning.  Again, key components in ideation.

In short, visualization is an extremely useful tool when it comes to ideation in many cases, and Einstein may have had an advantage in this area. You can train your visualization skills and potentially grow your own inferior parietal lobes. Playing 3D computer games can do this, as can practicing visualization with methods like ‘image streaming’ created by Win Wenger, which I made a video and post about in the past. This involves describing visualizations aloud in order to exercise your ability to picture things vividly.

We all know the story of Archimedes who discovered displacement when getting into a bathtub

Real-world visual cues are also often involved in eureka moments. Whereas Einstein used visualization, we all know the stories of Archimedes who discovered displacement when getting into a bathtub, and of Isaac Newton who understood gravity after seeing an apple fall to the ground. The concept for Nike shoes apparently occurred to founder Bill Bowerman when he was using a waffle iron (also in the default mode network) and mused that the grill pattern would provide excellent traction on the bottom of a shoe. Da Vinci observed how water would push a stick in a stream, and used this to understand the concept of “lift” for his flying machines.

These cues help to provide a starting point. But by being able to visualize, we can manipulate objects and ideas in our minds, and find new applications for them – or gain new insight. This is further facilitated by entering that relaxed, imagination-rich state that allows free-form thinking.

This visualization is also likely paired with a kinaesthetic awareness however, along with our ‘internal physics engine’ (reference). A musician might meanwhile think in ‘music’. Someone unable to visualize – with aphantasia for instance – shouldn’t feel that this will make them less creative. In fact, thinking in different modalities may help to offer new insights.

Dreams and Conversation for Ideation

Going even further, many great ideas come from dreams. This is when our mind is allowed to explore completely bizarre and novel connections in an entirely unfettered manner, while exercising all of the senses together.

Paul McCartney describes waking from sleep one morning with the tune of “Yesterday” already fully formed in his head.

Niels Bohr had his moment of ideation and created his model of the atom based on a dream that showed him a positively charged nucleus with electrons orbiting like planets, and Dmitri Mendeleev created the periodic table after falling into a dream listening to a music symphony and seeing the elements ‘flow together’ like the progression of a musical sequence. Most of Salvador Dali’s paintings were inspired by his dreams. This is a common theme in ideation.

Neils Bohr

Said Paul McCartney describes waking from sleep one morning with the tune of “Yesterday” already fully formed in his head.

These are just more extreme examples of people who have forgotten about a problem or creative task, only to have their brain continue to work on it during a kind of ‘incubation period’. Steven Johnson calls this the ‘Slow Hunch’ and uses Darwin as an example – his notes show that he had the germination of his big idea long before the final epiphany. The eureka moment is simply when it all clicked into place.

Darwin Ideation

Indeed, this kind of ‘unexpected insight’ is what led many throughout history to believe that truly great work was the work of God or spirits known as daemon’s.

We can teach ourselves to remember more of our dreams by keeping a dream diary. Alternatively, you can use Dali’s technique of dropping off to sleep while holding a spoon over a plate. The idea is that you wake the moment you actually lose consciousness (because the clatter of the spoon wakes you up), during which point you will be in a hypnagogic state: the state we find ourselves in just before sleep.

But is ideation really just a matter of relaxing, doing inane work, and going to sleep? Is there not more to it than that?

Input and Effort

Notice that in at many examples of ideation, the seeds of the idea were planted prior to the dream. That is to say, that the individual was working on the problem before going to sleep. The idea may happen while they take a break, but they first needed to prime their mind for the creative insight.

In other words, strategically loading the brain with relevant topics and then taking a break could help your mind to work on that problem, rather than thinking about your favorite TV show.

Equally important is spending a significant amount of researching and absorbing the topic prior to the moment of ideation.

Curls while reading
This is how I always read…

Take that story of Archimedes. While the ‘Eureka moment’ may have famously happened in the bathtub, he had actually be working for Heiron, king of the Sicilian city Syracuse to create the largest ship ever. Achimedes’ challenge was understanding how such a large object could float.


In other words, his discovery of the law of buoyancy, was likely simply the happy end product of countless hours of relevant research, thought, and study. Either that, or the bathtub story may have been entirely fabricated…

Likewise, Einstein would not have discovered relativity had he never had any exposure to mathematics or physics!

Jules-Henri Poincare described a unique property of Fuchsian Functions when randomly stepping onto a bus during a geological expedition, but only after spending weeks attempting to better understand them to no avail.

Henri Poincare

“At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it.”

Henri Poincare

We can consider our brains’ ideation process as an input-and-output situation. The input is relevant information and inspiration, the output is a new idea. The more input you provide, the more unique combinations your brain will be able to work on.

Seeking inspiration and analogous ideas can also help therefore. For example, DaVinci would spend a huge amount of time studying the flight of birds in order to better inform his own flying contraptions. If you’re attempting to invent a new mode of transport, then perhaps it would be wise to learn and experience as much as possible about similar existing modes of transport, or examples from nature.

Another theory, is that the best ideation happens in conversation. I have certainly elaborated on some of my best ideas while discussing them with friends, or even just telling them about them. Likewise, we should note that Tesla was with friends when discussing alternating current.

Circa 1740, A London coffee house. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In his TED talk, Steven Johnson discusses the role of conversation in cultivating good ideas. Conversation in many ways acts like a wondering thought – naturally travelling from association to association, while allowing input from multiple individuals – to allow for completely novel combinations of concepts. In this sense, conversation puts us in a similar state to the default mode network, but with more input. Here, a group of people become a kind of liquid network to use Johnson’s lexicon – an exocortex. This is why the introduction of the coffee house is likely at least one catalyst for the introduction of many great ideas, and possibly even the enlightenment as a whole. The interaction, combined with caffeine, was the perfect breeding ground for ideation. And of course we all know about businesses designing their offices to encourage more interactions between staff. I highly recommend checking out the full talk, it’s fascinating.

And final, to kill the idea that simply ‘switching off’ is the best way to be productive, we have the concept of “active imagination.” Postulated by Carl Jung, this is ‘imagination with a purpose’, where you actively use the same lateral thinking and free-flowing visualization to intentionally tackle a problem. This is something that can be achieved with time and practice. Cal Newport – author of Deep Work – recommends a similar strategy referred to as “Productive Meditation.” This is meditation where you simply think deeply on a given problem for a set amount of time.

Completely unrestrained thinking will often result in nonsense. In order to be considered creative, the random combinations of ideas need to be useful.

In one study, it was found that the most successful creative thinking actually occurs when BOTH the default mode network AND the executive control network are in use simultaneously. THIS is what really leads to ideation. The executive control network is the brain network responsible for controlling our attention – usually toward external stimuli. When you turn that attention inward though, the results can be magnificent. The rub is that normally, activating the ECN will automatically switch off the DMN. Again, it is through practice that you can learn to sustain your big-idea thinking.

When you turn that attention inward though, the results can be magnificent

Also important is the salience network – the regions of the brain that tell us when something is important, and help with motivation.

So if there’s a problem you’re trying to solve, spend some time researching and learning about it. Speak with friends about it. Research as much of it as you can. Then, go for a long walk. When you get home, try some productive imagination. Finally, let yourself fall into a deep sleep. If you’re very lucky, you might just have your moment of ideation.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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