Freewriting and how to generate ideas bottom-up

One apparent difference between human and artificial intelligence is that an algorithm needs to be fed with adequate data to be able to do something useful. In contrast, the human brain can be quite happy without external input. Giving the mind nothing to work on or confronting it with nonsensical material can stimulate fresh thinking.

This is what an exercise called “freewriting”1 takes advantage of. I find it one of the most effective tools to generate new ideas. The rules are simple: during a limited time (usually 10-20 mins) write about a subject without ever stopping to move your hand (or to type on your keyboard). The key is to never stop writing. When you are out of things to say, instead of interrupting the writing flow by searching your mind for new ideas, jot down nonsensical words (for example, repeat the last word on the page multiple times) or filler phrases. I like to literally translate my mind onto paper and often use sentences like “I don’t know what to say” or “what else am I thinking here” and so on. As long as you keep putting words on paper, it does not matter what they are or if what you write makes any sense at all.

When you do this, something happens.

The brain is a thought producing machine that continuously spits out opinions, worries, ideas, memories and so on. When you challenge your mind with useless repetition and boredom, it will jump out the rut to something else. Quite often, that leads to uncovering new places or hidden corners.

Being able to come up with a fresh set of ideas whenever stuck is tremendously valuable. There is something about this “writing flow” that is not available to other techniques.

Another advantage is that freewriting reliably delivers a sense of accomplishment. As there are almost no rules (just keep going), it is not difficult to reach the writing goal. What is required is a concentrated effort to keep the mind on paper. That is in some respect, similar to what happens during meditation but simpler to execute. The challenge of meditation is not to get distracted and keep the mind aware of what is happening. In freewriting, distractions are welcome, and all we have to do is to follow them with our pen or keyboard. I find that a couple of intense writing sessions can clear up the mind in a similarly satisfying way as meditation can.

Because leaving the path is allowed and encouraged, the likelihood to encounter something new is high - an idea, direction or novel connection between existing ideas. Freewriting helps to enrich our internal map by adding further details to it. Clarity comes from bringing previously unrelated strain of thoughts into alignment.

This “connection making” happens automatically. What we need to do is to “feed” our mind with explorations of concepts, thoughts and mental images and then let it do its work.

Another way to describe what is going on is to developing ideas bottom-up versus top-down. Classical brainstorming starts top-down. We have a question or subject and try to find as many related ideas as possible. A freewriting session initially starts top-down. But then we allow the mind to digress and explore new directions that might not have anything to do with the original question. We then move into a bottom-up approach where ideas emerge through making novel connections. Bottom-up requires less effort as it is more natural to how we think and our brain functions.

I just scratched the surface of this fascinating subject of creativity and human versus artificial intelligence. More to come soon.

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