The Secret To Creativity, Intelligence, And Scientific Thinking

Research shows that creativity and intelligence are linked with the physical connections in our brains. Here's how to connect the dots.

There’s a key difference between knowledge and experience and it’s best described like this:

The image is from cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, who came up with such a brilliant way to express a concept that’s often not that easy to grasp.

The image makes a clear point—that knowledge alone is not useful unless we can make connections between what we know. Whether you use the terms “knowledge” and “experience” to explain the difference or not, the concept itself is sound.

Lots of great writers, artists and scientists have talked about the importance of collecting ideas and bits of knowledge from the world around us, and making connections between those dots to fuel creative thinking and new ideas.

This is a really fun, inspiring topic to read about, so I collected some quotes and advice from my favorite creative thinkers about the importance of making connections in your brain. I’ve added emphasis to the important parts, but if you have time I’d recommend reading the whole post and even digging into the sources I’ve linked to.

To start with though, I want to look at some research that shows intelligence is closely linked with the physical connections in our brains.

Intelligence and connections: why your brain needs to communicate well with itself

Research from the California Institute of Technology showed that intelligence is something found all across the brain, rather than in one specific region:

The researchers found that, rather than residing in a single structure, general intelligence is determined by a network of regions across both sides of the brain.

One of the researchers explained that the study showed the brain working as a distributed system:

“Several brain regions, and the connections between them, were what was most important to general intelligence,” explains Gläscher.

The study also supported an existing theory about intelligence that says general intelligence is based on the brain’s ability to pull together and integrate various kinds of processing, such as working memory.

At Washington University, a research study found that connectivity with a particular area of the prefrontal cortex has a correlation with a person’s general intelligence.

This study showed that intelligence relied partly on high functioning brain areas, and partly on their ability to communicate with other areas in the brain.

Aside from physical connectivity in the brain, being able to make connections between ideas and knowledge we hold in our memories can help us to think more creatively and produce higher quality work.

Connections fuel creativity: nothing is original

Steve Jobs is an obvious person to reference whenever you’re talking about creativity or innovation, so I wasn’t surprised to find that he has spoken about making connections before. This great quote is from a Wired interview in 1996:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.

Jobs went on to explain that experience (as we saw in the image at the top of this post) is the secret to being able to make connections so readily:

That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Maria Popova is arguably one of the best examples (and proponents) of what she calls “combinatorial creativity.” That is, connecting things to create new ideas:

… in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.

She’s given a talk on this at a Creative Mornings event before, and made some great points. Being able to read about a wide range of topics is often one of of the most important elements. I really liked how she pointed out the way our egos affect our willingness to build on what others have done before:

… something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before…

My favorite part of this talk is Popova’s Lego analogy, where she likens the dots of knowledge we have to Lego building blocks:

The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.

Author Austin Kleon is someone who immediately comes to mind whenever the topic of connections and remixing art comes up. Kleon is the author of Steal Like An Artist, a book about using the work of others to inspire and inform your own.

It starts off like this:

Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

The honest artist answers, “I steal them.”

Kleon is inspiring because he’s so upfront about how the work of other people has become part of his own work. He’s also keen on the phrase I quoted from Maria Popova above, that “nothing is original”:

Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.

If you’re looking for advice on creating more connections between the knowledge you have (and collecting even more knowledge), Kleon’s book is a great place to start. He offers suggests like:

  • carry a notebook everywhere
  • read a lot
  • keep a scratch file

How scientific thinking is all about making connections

When it comes to the field of science, making connections between those dots of knowledge seems to be just as important. In The Art of Scientific Investigation, Cambridge University professor W. I. B. Beveridge wrote that successful scientists “have often been people with wide interests,” which led to their originality:

Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected.

He also suggested that scientists should expand their reading outside of their own field, in order to add to their knowledge (so they would have more dots when it came time to connect them, later):

Most scientists consider that it is a more serious handicap to investigate a problem in ignorance of what is already known about it.

Lastly, science writer Dorian Sagan agrees that science is about connections:

Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect.

Start making connections and getting creative

I’ll leave you with some suggestions for improving your own ability to make connections.

1. Add to your knowledge—the power of brand new experiences

After all, the more knowledge you have, the more connections you can make. Start by reading more, reading more widely, and exploring new opportunities for gathering knowledge (for instance, try some new experiences—travel, go to meetups or take up a new hobby).

As researcher Dr.Duezel explained when it comes to experiencing new things:

“Only completely new things cause strong activity in the midbrain area.”

So trying something new and forcing a gentle brain overload can make a dramatic improvement for your brain activity.

2. Keep track of everything – especially in the shower

As Austin Kleon suggests, take a notebook (or your phone) with you everywhere and take notes. Don’t expect your brain to remember everything—give it a hand by noting down important concepts or ideas you come across. As you do this, you may remember previous notes that relate (hey, you’re making connections already!)—make a note of those as well.

You can do this even when you’re in the shower with something like Acqua Notes. The shower is especially a place that has proven to make us more creative.

3. Review your notes daily—the Benjamin Franklin method

Going over your notes often can help you to more easily recall them when you need to. Read through what you’ve made notes of before, and you might find that in the time that’s passed, you’ve added more knowledge to your repertoire that you can now connect to your old notes!

In fact, this used to be one of Benjamin Franklin’s best kept secrets. Every morning and every evening he would review his day answering 1 simple question:

“What good have I done today?”

Here is his original daily routine from way back:

No doubt you have some great ideas of your own—let us know in the comments what works for you.

This article originally appeared on Buffer and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Taís Melillo]

Add New Comment

19 Comments

  • Pranav Agarwal

    To an extent the concept of "Systems Thinking" for an individual or "Learning Organization" for groups/teams/organizations reflects the very same thought process. Some may call it intelligence, others creativity or just plain old "common sense" but making connections are so so important to evolving

  • Alex Blumentals

    The spaces we work in and interfaces we have at our disposal largely mimic the structures and linkages in or brains and emotional pathways. Drill and repetition make these inevitably narrow, same as if you exercised the same sets of muscles and movements and little else, your spatial-creativity simple becomes numb. The same types of initiatives, products, go-to market approaches too often are the same experiment over and over again. Meanwhile, it is normally the case that the deeper lessons, what is caseworthy is simply lost in translation.To make better connections one must keep all the pieces visible and have a space and time to play with them all. Like revisiting your own Rubic's cube.

  • I find it very useful to keep a daily logbook, whether I type it on a computer or take notes by pen. Pen and paper work well for me. At the end of the day, I can reflect on what I've done, I can reflect better on my life. Try it :)

  • arunya_p

    Oooh love this article! Very well explained. It helped me understand so much about the creative thinking process in my own mind actually. So glad I stumbled upon it.

    Thank you Ms Cooper! :)

  • Jessica Cox

    This is an incredible post. Thank you! I am going to do this Ben Style from now on!

  • Missed this one on Buffer. Love Maria's quote - sums up my thoughts on integration, the ability to see the forest and the trees, figure out the relationships and what it all means. See also the comment on 'territorial divisions.' Experience. That's a common theme here, something to which I'll add this caveat. Experience comes in all shapes, sizes, forms. Experience doesn't have to mean the linear progression of an upward career trajectory, shouldn't be limited to a resume. Bad experiences, personal and professional struggles.. it all shapes us, teaches us.

    As to my creativity, I really need a better method to keep track - when pacing, when walking around doing other things. Sometimes my brain gets racing w/ ideas, but when I stop and get to the computer – not as easily said as done, making that time – nothing that comes out of the keyboard seems as 'brilliant' as it did in my head. Keep meaning to grab my cell, dictate as I go and see if that helps. FWIW.

  • I love this, it reinforces the real value of people with a wide array of knowledge in a world where depth has trumped breadth for too long. You have to have a lot of dots to connect in order to connect the dots. It seems so obvious, but tends to be ignored. This is where the spark of innovation comes from. I'll be posting musings such as this at my new site www.profoundandmundane.com, until I find a larger platform to share my thoughts.

  • Shih Cindy

    Connections fuel creativity. That's how neurons operate, how human network spreads. Excellent article that streamlines and reminds us the fundamentals of human behavioral.

  • mlkkaylorlaw

    Great Article...!

    One of the things I have carried with me daily for over twenty years is a voice recorder--now, I understand that smart phones may have one--but, a dedicated dictaphone allows me to quickly make mind notes without any interference from the phone's inherent distractions. Also, place the voice recorder near the shower and you can record your streams of consciousness while streams of water shower you. Lastly, you can link up your thoughts on the voice recorder while using a smart phone to take of picture of something inspiring. Then download to your computer and create a file for later reference. You never know when your idea could change the world, it's your world make it yours...!

  • And you don't have to steal to be inspired by things. There are methods of giving credit, which honors the work of those who came before.

  • Edited it and changed the meaning, the point of the original being that knowledge is created from the connections between information points. If anything the edit would make more sense the other way around, experience as the Jobs quote observes isn't valuable without reflection, it is thinking about experiences that allows you to turn experience into something useful, by connecting it to other things something that sounds a lot like the creation of knowledge.

  • I think Ana's point shines a light on something though. While not crediting the original artist here was just an oversight, it does bring up a point I've had contention with every time I see the headline 'nothing is original.'

    There's a huge trend now in the business to promote and celebrate the advice that great artists 'steal ideas'.

    Unfortunately, it's a nuanced saying. It means 'steal inspiration.' And it means be influenced by everything. And use it all to reassemble into something now.

    This is something 'creative' people do naturally, without thinking. But some, not understanding the nuance, tend to look at this as a license to just take A + B and 'remix' into something else.

    There's a difference between creative 'originality' in combinatory cognition and just copying people's ideas and calling them your own.

    The latter may be effective, but it'll fast label someone a hack. And the most creative people, who could help feed new ideas, tend to steer clear of hacks.