Discover more from the shimmering void
A Practical Guide to Gardening Ideas
Mapping the lifecycle of creative thought
I’ve always been fascinated by what’s going on in my mind. Growing up, I never had any trouble entertaining myself. Having spent my youth filling my brain with fantastical stories, pixels, chiptunes and cartoons I can close my eyes and produce imaginary worlds on demand. Unsurprisingly, I’ve done a lot of this. The more I experience and learn, the more entertaining this inner-theatre has become. Over time I became interested in how I could most effectively develop my imagination and, today, mapping the nature of creative thought has become a bit of an obsession. Where do ideas come from? How do we find more? What makes some ideas better than others?
What exactly is an idea in the first place?
First, I tried the macOS system dictionary which recurses on itself:
a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action
an act of thinking
have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something
Then, I asked ChatGPT which does a quite a lot better:
An idea is a mental concept or impression that represents something that could be done, created or achieved. It is a product of the human mind and can be tangible or intangible, concrete or abstract.
I actually think this is a good startbut it feels narrow compared to my personal experience and includes several vague terms. From the first-person, I define an idea as a mental object, somewhat akin to the objects we perceive in the physical world. Objects can be manipulated, examined, mutated and related to one another but, at the limit, an object is simply a pattern we recognise. The human mind seems to take great joy in uncovering patterns, assigning labels to them and then identifying patterns amongst those labels. Applied recursively, objects (mental or otherwise) are defined by their relationship to other objects, it’s relationships all the way down.
For the past ~22 years I've been thinking of as many ideas for video games as I possibly can, on a near daily basis, and this model has held up pretty well. I am constantly, reflexively examining and colliding concepts in my head to discover novel territory. Further, I've studied my patterns of thought and behaviour in an effort to optimise this process. How can I think of ideas that other people might miss? How have did the creators I admire have their best ideas?
Following this thread, I accidentally stumbled into many of the tools found in SCAMPER. The result is what I'd call a kit of "mental moves" e.g. breaking into parts, zooming in, zooming out and figure-ground inversion. The more I’ve applied each of these movements, the more natural they become. As an example, I love to stare at optical illusions and practice consciously switching between the possible interpretations. Yes, I already know, I’m a nerd.
So, having spent all this time obsessing about thinking, here’s a 1000ft view of what my creative thought process looks like:
Pre-condition: be extremely curious (I can’t help you with that).
Consume large quantities of information from diverse sources
bring an open, curious attitude
all forms of media, conversation, experience are on the table here
scope to the topics you're working on but don't go too narrow
Eventually inspiration strikes, the initial seed of an idea is born
an amorphous mental object is formed, often intangible
Examine the idea, carefully, without smothering it
With time, this usually prompts an insight
I define insight as the moment of “relevance realisation”; where you identify a new candidate edge for your internal knowledge graph
if that insight is compatible with the rest of your mental model it might slot right in, or you might have to reshuffle some other beliefs to fit with this latest realisation
some insights cannot be integrated immediately and require more scaffolding before they will take hold
Our little, baby idea has gained some definition and we can continue our self-conversation to zoom & enhance
Eventually the thrill of insight gives way to the frustration of hitting a wall, no more obvious connections are appearing
Put the thread down and restart the process
background processing can uncover connections between ideas that are too deep to notice in the moment
There's much more I would like to say here, but it's a little beside the overall point. To me, ideation is the skill of manipulating mental objects which do not have a clear form. It requires a gentle touch, broad perspective and extreme patience. All skills I have had to learn the hard way.
Investigating ideation up close this way has made me intimately familiar with my own shortcomings. Stubbornness, bias, laziness and judgement can severely limit how far you can explore your ideas. This is why I see meditation and Buddhism as a secret weapon for creatives. Practicing mindfulness is what allows me to map my own mental process in the first place, but the addition of Buddhist philosophy to the mix creates incredibly fertile ground for ideas to grow. Perhaps the greatest boon of all is the ability to push my thinking to the limit without feeling an egoic sense of ownership over the result.
After all, if the self is an illusion then so is authorship. Information simply flows through networks, those networks process and transform information due to their internal structure and pass on the output to other networks, collaboratively. All the information that I consume and process has to come from somewhere, and (by virtue of being alive) I feed information back into my environment. In a very broad sense the system is doing the thinking and it’s impossible to attribute the genesis of an idea to a single source.
If you’re willing accept the un-authored view of ideation it reveals the stocks and flows of our thought process. You might have already noticed that in the process I outlined above there are four major variables we can adjust to tune our thinking:
our information intake
the set of "mental moves" we have access to
In my experience mindfulness and Buddhism are extremely helpful for points (1) and (2), but that still leaves us with (3) and (4).
The bad news? I don't have a single, clear answer on the best way to affect these. The good news? I've joined Subconscious to find out. We’re building a notebook that thinks with you and helps you discover relevant thoughts from other users... With a little AI magic sprinkled in.
My hunch is that it is possible to use technology to augment the inner self-conversation to expand the breadth, depth and pace of human thinking. A good tool for thought needs to act like a human jamming-partner, guessing where my thoughts are heading without being given explicit instructions. Creative thinking requires continuous, subtle adjustment to the trajectory of thought. Capturing that feeling in software might sound extremely difficult but I feel uniquely motivated and positioned to help pull it off.
So, now part of my job is thinking of ideas about how to build tools to help me have better ideas... So that I can have better ideas.
Despite this new adventure I will also continue my work on WizardChess, games & generative art. I expect my personal projects and my work on Subconscious will be mutually synergistic and I'll be one of the first to know if we've built something useful., releasing a massive update for WizardChess and getting COVID. Busy is good sometimes, but COVID sucks.
Until next time,
Thanks for reading :)
What I’ve been thinking about
you have been a good assistant 😬
there is also some kind of physics to thought as well, making the terms tricky here
of course I did not do nearly as thorough of a job to elucidate the full range of strategies
I first learned to deliberately cultivate my own belief structure (to accomodate insights more readily) from reading about Charlie Munger’s “latticework of mental models”
something I struggled with when I was younger
It’s well acknowledged amongst artists that originality is overrated, and perhaps even illusory
which I am only a small part of