The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking: Being Able to Make Connections

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When we shared this image from the @buffer Twitter account a while back, it got me thinking. The Tweet resulted in over 1,000 retweets, which seems like an indication that it resonated with a lot of people. There’s a key difference between knowledge and experience and it’s best described like this:

knoweldge

The original 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

stevejobsSteve 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.

If you liked this post, you might like Why positive encouragement works better than criticism, according to science and How our brains work when we are creative: The science of great ideas

P.S. Recently we launched brand new Buffer for Business, with Google Analytics support, fan and follower growth options and more. Check it out and see if it can help your social media efforts.

Image credits: Biography.com, The Guardian, Penn Gazette Blog, flickriver

  • Tim Wut

    Really enjoyed this post. Reminded me of Leo’s recently where he explained the power of storytelling and what it does to our brains.

  • http://about.me/stephenanfield Stephen

    Great stuff! I own #2, and it has been a lifesaver!

  • Vitor Bellote

    Great post again Belle! I was one of those 1,000 retweets.
    But, if you alow me, I put another item to this image, like this:

    • LeoWid

      this is amazing Viktor, great stuff!

    • http://www.mithunjj.com/ Mithun John Jacob

      Yes, experience is about connecting the dots.

    • http://www.einsteinssecret.net/ Deborah Owen

      I like this addition! It shows the overwhelm that we experience regularly, and how we have to work to pull out knowledge and create experience.

    • http://www.einsteinssecret.net/ Deborah Owen

      May I have permission to use this illustration?

      • Vitor Bellote

        Deborah, thank you! The original is from Hugh MacLeod, I just added the “big data block”, so, if you give the credits for us both, I don’t see any problem.

    • Avril111

      My Uncle Gabriel got a stunning blue Dodge Charger SRT8 from
      only workin part time on a home pc… hop over to here B­i­g­2­9­.­ℂ­o­m

    • Firefly

      Good illustration! One thing: knowledge can be also “derived” information so not necessary an exact subset of elements from the Big Data set.

  • http://frantic-naturalist.com/ Vernon Swanepoel

    I find driving is where I come up with ideas, and use a voice recorder there – it’s easier than trying to get to my voice recorder on my phone.

  • http://twitter.com/jessnola Jessica Rohloff

    Loved this post, particularly the images. The archaic word use in Benjamin Franklin’s schedule is highly amusing. I picture him at lunchtime, sitting high up on a veranda, admiring miles of ledgers and spreadsheets. Or filing suit against the subject of his “present study.” :)

  • Chris Marabate

    I need me one of those Aqua Notepads, I’m always getting ideas in the shower and forgetting them by the time I’m dressed. I’m about to read that post by Leo because its so true that I get all my good ideas in the shower!

  • http://www.thefapman.com/ Bruce Kent

    To add to it, I think experience + reflection is the secret to creativity.

    “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.” – Steve Jobs.

  • Patrick Mahan

    Great article, Belle! I like Hugh’s illustration, but I would substitute the word Experience with Expertise.

    • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa Colon DeLay

      I was basically thinking the same thing, Patrick. That’s what prompted me to tweak and and propose a new model that’s an adaptation. :) It’s embed-able at lisadelay.com/blog (calling it “The Prowess Wheel”)

  • Violetta L Wong

    Connections between experiences and knowledge is the key to creativity, which is brilliant explanation. A lot of talented people mentioned about it in different wordings, at least I know Einstein (Combinatory thought), Napoleon Hill (Synthetic thinking) mentioned about it. From my own experience, LEARNING(KNOWLEDGE from schooling or self-study) and EXPERIENCING(work or life) are TWINS, they must grow together to make the most positive impact for our career and life, to form wisdom. However, in my society it seems they over-focus on learning and neglect practical experiencing. They just know going to universities and don’t bother to experience something real in their lives. Nevertheless experience is the key to unleash what we learnt as it literally links our knowledge together to form new ideas.

  • http://lucidability.com/ Jamie Alexander

    I’ve always thought it was useful to play things like badminton and pool (cue sport) because it teaches you to see five moves in front of you, which can teach your brain to put things together quickly.

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa Colon DeLay

    This visual makes this concept powerful!
    I really loved this, and like Vitor, I felt inspired. (I think you fuel the creative/connecting juices, Belle.

    So, I started thinking about Knowledge as part of the progression to prowess (mastery) and I made this visual.

    “The Prowess Wheel”

    The Best Part? I made it embed-able. (You can just copy the code and paste it into your site.)
    If you want it just drop by my blog: lisadelay.com/blog

    Feel free to use it or share it, ya’ll with my compliments.

  • Adam Muller

    A great post Belle Beth!
    Recently, Brian Solis used a phrase that I haven’t stopped thinking about, “The Human Algorithm”. It spun me off into some interesting and useful thought. In regards to the method of connecting the dots, I remembered learning about Greatest Common Factors in middle school. And if you think about it, human beings are the Greatest Common Factor for all things. Any subject, any object, any knowledge, any experience, is tied together because in some measure it’s connected to humans. And everything we know about human beings can be used as a starting point to understand anything we approach. I can use what I know about humans as a bridge to understand something I do not yet know.

  • Rob L

    This is one of the reasons why I ha g around trading (options and day trading) forums even though that method of trading is alien to me, I’m learning a tremendous amount. Watching how others trade is connecting the dots for my trading even though I’m only a buy and hold investor

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    Great post. Exactly why I carry around a notebook all the time (sometimes 2!). And it’s a reason why I have gotten more into blogging since I started 5 years ago. It forces me to process all the “knowledge” in my head.

  • tim_miles

    Wait… that’s not exactly what MacLeod’s cartoon said… unless I’m missing it… his didn’t contrast Knowledge and Experience… it contrasted Information and Knowledge… maybe that’s a semantic argument, but doesn’t the artist’s original intent matter? http://gapingvoid.com/2014/01/22/information-vs-knowledge/

  • sudhir

    Brain pusher…thanks.

  • http://verita.bz/ Erkan

    All I know is always take note. Belle, the article is inspirational. Bravo!

  • kschang

    There was a video on TED: Creativity is when ideas have sex or something like that.

    I termed it “educate, delimitate, stimulate”.

    Educate yourself so you have data points to connect

    Delimitate to limit your options to force alternate connections

    Stimulate (via various types of media) for alternate connections

    http://kschang.hubpages.com/hub/3-Keys-to-Creativity-Stimulate-Educate-and-Delimitate

  • jonbaker

    Great post and discussion. I lvoe the graphics and specially the shower note pad.

    Reminds me of an interview I had some years ago for a marketing manager role, where I was asked about new ideas (they needed some) and I said there are none. It’s about adapting other ones. They didn’t like the answer, I didn’t get the job and the firm didn’t last long either!

  • http://blog.kesor.net Evgeny Zislis

    This is exactly what Eli Goldratt “Thinking Processes” are all about. Was a bit surprised to not see him mentioned.

  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    I only know that knowledge is mostly dull, the experience is rI only know that knowledge is mostly dull, the experience is reliable and can change.eliable and can change.

  • Ian Gertler

    Another brilliant post …

  • Shehnaz

    A really great post! and I really agree that experience helps us to make the most out of what we learn!

  • Kat

    I think your posting is somewhat flawed. What creates experience is action. Knowledge is not power until action is taken, and lessons (usually mistakes) fuel experience.

  • herb wiggins

    There may be some unexpected insights into how to create creativity,
    think about thinking, and understanding understanding, by reviewing
    cortical structure/function relationships. It also gives insights into
    learning/education, and the nature of human minds.
    If a mid 60′s retired professional can be very creative, maybe there is something going on here.
    Google. Le Chanson Sans Fin at wordpress.com
    Thanks for your time!

    Herb Wiggins, M.D., (ret.); clinical neurosciences.

  • Nick Barghini

    I have to say, I originally confused the “connections” between parts of the brain and ideas with “connections” between people. However after thinking about it, I’d say connections among people play an equally large factor in creativity and innovation as information, knowledge and experience. The example of gaining knowledge versus connecting that knowledge with other ideas etc.. is analogous to the idea of gaining knowledge and harvesting it to yourself versus sharing that knowledge with others (which usually opens up completely new ways of thinking in itself!).

    I don’t think the importance of connections among people can be understated when talking about creativity. We’re wired for it after all!

    Great article by the Buffer team as usual.