My heart was pounding out of my chest when I was ready to press the send button to proceed to the initial…
It’s a timeless expression. Okay, it’s cliché. But we’ve all had an, “aha!” moment. Depending on your enthusiasm and the difficulty of the problem, your excitement may vary anywhere from a casual brow raise to throwing a dance party. This is particularly important for early career researchers, especially graduate students, whose first good ideas often start the foundations for their careers. Despite the importance, these budding scientists may not be as familiar with the whole scientific discovery process as their more experienced peers. If you’re anything like me, the pressure to come up with good ideas early on keeps you one your toes.
Good ideas aren’t always motivated by career interests either, sometimes the problem you’re working on happens to be really important. This has been especially true in the age of COVID-19, where fears of the virus have put pressure on researchers to find treatments and cures. Urgency makes for a pretty spectacular motivator, and this urgency has influenced a lot of institutions to pull out all of their big science-guns. As a not-so-shameless plug for one of the institutions I used to work at, places like Oak Ridge National Laboratory have taken a multi-pronged approach using high-performance computing, neutron scattering, and additive manufacturing to combat the virus.
No matter what area of the problem you’re tackling, getting that idea is the real challenge. Ideas form the very foundation of research. This is probably a, “duh” moment for most people. We all know what an idea is after all. Tons of good ideas get tossed around by researchers and the public alike. There are also some horrible ones, if not only ineffective but fraudulent or dangerous.
So I got to wondering, what’s the best way to get the wheels in that noggin spinning so we can get good ideas? Turns out there’s some interesting research on how people generate ideas for just about anything. Assuming you’re knowledgeable about the topic you’re trying to research, how might some of these general approaches apply to something like science? I’ve curated some of the answers (and non-answers) and put my spin on them here.
Free Your Mind
Maybe coming up with scientific ideas is best done with a sense of open-mindedness. Or at least this is part of the approach a lot of successful entrepreneurs use to crank out new business ideas. Entrepreneurs often entertain a lot of ideas, even ones that fail, to be successful. How this might apply to science?
If you’re willing to entertain new approaches to solve a problem, even if you might be skeptical at first, you’re more likely to come up with something that works. Suspending judgment is easier said than done, so what might be preventing us from being so hard on ourselves? I think that problem is two-fold; having the right mindset and being in the right environment are both essential. This isn’t uniquely my position either.
These concepts help form the basis for, “brainstorming.” You’ve probably done this before. I know I have. A team gets together, throws some ideas around, reserving judgment until after all the ideas have presented themselves. It’s simple. There’s just one problem.
Brainstorming is Kind of Garbage
Research has shown that when people come up with ideas individually and then combine their efforts afterward, also known as working in “nominal groups”, they outperform team brainstorming sessions.
Some of you might be okay with this. Even I felt good about this conclusion. You’re telling me listening to my labmate’s new fruit-based-carpet business during a brainstorming session on new experiments might not be worth the time? AWESOME! But wait, there’s a caveat though. Brainstorming is used for idea creation, not idea refinement or application. Subtle difference. In the end, I may still have to hear my labmate’s idea after all, just later. Rats.
Okay, so it seems like coming up with good ideas in science likely occurs when a person has some alone time and is more willing to entertain their ideas. But what if you’re like me, and no matter how quarantined you’ve made your workspace, your ideas are still awful or nonexistent? Is there a time in our day where ideas are more bountiful?
A Well Rested Bird Gets the Worm
Most people I know wake up and use a designated window of time to rev their engines and get the day started. Not me. I have a habit of waking up a lot earlier than I need to. Like an hour earlier. With my extra time, sometimes I’ll just lie there and think. There, I get all sorts of obscure, but often good, ideas. What to write, what experiments I should perform, how to tackle reviewer comments. You name it. This is anecdotal, so I looked into it further. And it turns out that there might be something to crafting ideas after sleep.
An early study determined that relational memory, which is our ability to connect the dots if you will, gets stronger after time and sleep. Once you’re awake, ideas come easier because your brain has worked to connect memories that independently don’t contribute to an idea, but together can make something special. Not all sleep is equal, as this association is primarily driven by REM sleep, not other parts of the sleep cycle.
What does this all mean? We should all be sleeping a lot more, and consistently, if we want to come up with good ideas. As researchers, this can be counter-intuitive. We’re told to constantly “go, go, go,” often sacrificing sleep or downtime to continue chasing that oh-so-illustrious productivity. Taking a break, in a sense, might be the best thing we can do when we’re out of options. This doesn’t mean that binge-watching YouTube and Netflix is the ticket to great ideas either. If only someone could figure out how to make that work.
So those are some concepts. Turns out controlling your brain to churn out good ideas is sometimes an exercise in relaxation. You know, chill out occasionally. Seriously. It might be the best thing you can do to move forward.
Buckner, T. (2016, March 27). How do entrepreneurs come up with great ideas? Crain’s Cleveland Business.
Cai, D. J., Mednick, S. A., Harrison, E. M., Kanady, J. C., & Mednick, S. C. (2009). REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(25), 10130–10134.
Ellenbogen, J. M., Hu, P. T., Payne, J. D., Titone, D., & Walker, M. P. (2007). Human relational memory requires time and sleep. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(18), 7723.
In the News: Coronavirus and “Alternative” Treatments. (n.d.). NCCIH. Retrieved July 2, 2020.
Buckner, T. (2016, March 27). How do entrepreneurs come up with great ideas? Crain’s Cleveland Business. https://www.crainscleveland.com/article/20160327/BLOGS05/160319828/how-do-entrepreneurs-come-up-with-great-ideas
Cai, D. J., Mednick, S. A., Harrison, E. M., Kanady, J. C., & Mednick, S. C. (2009). REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(25), 10130–10134. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0900271106
Ellenbogen, J. M., Hu, P. T., Payne, J. D., Titone, D., & Walker, M. P. (2007). Human relational memory requires time and sleep. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(18), 7723. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0700094104
In the News: Coronavirus and “Alternative” Treatments. (n.d.). NCCIH. Retrieved July 2, 2020, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/in-the-news-coronavirus-and-alternative-treatments
McCorkle, M. (2020, April 15). ORNL is in the fight against COVID-19 | ORNL.
Mullen, B., Johnson, C., & Salas, E. (1991). Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12(1), 3–23.
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