The Problem With Brainstorming

From time to time I find myself invited to brainstorm for people. This usually involves coming up with new ways my hosts might “add value to their revenue chain” or “leverage their brand.” To be perfectly honest, I’m not very good at it. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, though, here’s a little history of brainstorming.

Brainstorming is a creative problem-solving strategy launched in 1953 in a book called Applied Imagination by Alex F. Osborn, an advertising executive. The basic idea is that when judgment is suspended, a bold and copious flow of original ideas can be produced. It’s very much a team effort — rather than getting bogged down in the judgments, personal criticisms and ego clashes that accompany the ownership of, and investment in, certain ideas, the team acts collectively.

When you’re brainstorming, ideas belong to no one and come from anywhere. Anything goes.

1950s America, with its hysterical anticommunist witch hunts, might seem like the kind of place where ownership and individuality would be valued more highly than nonproprietary teamwork. But the template for Osborn’s emphasis on collectivism wasn’t communism, it was the Army. In 1953, World War II was still a very recent memory. Brainstorming, said Osborn, was using the brain to storm a creative problem “in commando fashion, each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.”

I published an article in AIGA Voice last year entitled “Creativity and the Sputnik Shock.” In it, I traced the links between the explosion in creativity research in the 1950s and the crisis in American self-confidence triggered by Soviet successes in the space race.

I pointed out how Bob Dylan’s scattershot liner notes to his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, wouldn’t have been possible without Osborn’s ideas about suspending judgment to encourage ideational fluency; even the term freewheeling is Osborn’s, one of the advertising man’s four stages of brainstorming (deferring judgment, striving for quantity, freewheeling and seeking combinations).

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to attend an “ideation session” at an address on Park Avenue in New York. The client was a prestigious hotel, and the setting was appropriately sumptuous. Beneath chandeliers, attended by discreet waiters serving coffee and amuse-bouches, a dozen artists, journalists, management gurus, game designers and hotel bigwigs spent eight hours with a “facilitator” called Mike, who guided us through the session according to principles Osborn would have recognized and approved.

We were teamed up, asked to cover whiteboards with elements of ideas, shuffled around, asked to elaborate on other people’s ideas, re-teamed, asked to make sensible business propositions (“in the $200-300 million a year range”) out of nonsensical gobbledygook, made to free-associate, made to come up with the worst idea possible and then find a good idea buried in it, and so on.

Thinking in teams, and pitching other people’s ideas rather than my own, I quickly found my freshest thoughts blending into a kind of generalized banality, a dollar-green cookie dough. Quantity there was, but the lack of a personal moral framework and the impossibility of being negative took quality off the agenda. Like the Sundance Kid, I wanted to ask the facilitator, “Can I move now?”

Why, 50 years after Osborn’s book, do I find that brainstorming, far from unleashing hidden originality in me, blocks and banishes all my most interesting ideas? Put it down to the most important difference between 1953 and 2006: the internet. More specifically, the way the internet has encouraged games with personality and personae, with avatars and animus.

In his 1968 book, Frames of Mind, the humanist psychologist Liam Hudson looked at British schoolboys, concentrating on whether they were convergers or divergers — his terms for two different thinking styles, characterized respectively by convergence toward “one right answer” on the one hand and a kind of riffing, improvisational style on the other.

Hudson thought convergers tended to head toward the sciences and divergers toward the arts. But he wasn’t sure if these differences were innate, or came with the job. So he asked his subjects to role-play two characters, a mad and shocking artist called McMice and a controlled, conventional scientist called Masters. He found that these masks, or avatars, could change the boys’ characters completely.

Playing McMice, the convergent science types could produce material every bit as shocking, original and even obscene as their divergent arts counterparts.

Long before the internet allowed us all to play with personae and avatars, it was the need for sexual privacy that most recommended the wearing of masks. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” said Oscar Wilde. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

In the same spirit, Yukio Mishima entitled one of his books Confessions of a Mask. Even after homosexuality had been widely decriminalized, it was still sexual personae, as Camille Paglia pointed out in her 1990 book of the same title, that most people wore masks to conceal … or reveal.

And then the internet came along, and we were suddenly all in chat rooms, on bulletin boards, in newsgroup discussions, using the kinds of aliases that previously only pornographers, gays, satirists and songwriters had adopted. We were suddenly all, in Thomas de Zengotita’s term, self-mediators.

And what developed, I think, was a new way to be original, a new way to be oneself, or selves. For instance, here I am talking to you as iMomus. My real name is Nick Currie. I became Momus in order to make pop records, then I became iMomus for various kinds of conversation online.

The relationships among Nick Currie and Momus and iMomus are complicated, but “What would Momus think?” is a meaningful question to me. Momus has, by striking certain poses in public — and I don’t say they aren’t completely heartfelt, but somehow they’re also heightened from my own personal opinions — developed a toolbox of concepts, positions and interests that go beyond my own private ones.

I developed these interlocking ideas for Momus (copy-edited for consistency by my readers) in somewhat the same way Hudson’s schoolboys developed the character of McMice; they put something of themselves into the character, selecting and heightening certain elements, suppressing others.

This is how we mask-wearers develop more original and interesting positions and ideas. We send our battle robot avatars out onto the safe battleground of the net and let others vent their animus on them. Passion and hatred shape our Frankenstein’s monsters as much as love and ego investment. They become keen fighting machines, and every time they get bashed or smashed up we just put them into the garage and rebuild them. If they’ve sustained too much damage in flame wars, we can erase them as easily as we erected them, melt them down, mint another mask, rejoin the fray.

The trouble with brainstorming is that it reduces people into impersonal little thought bites, little sound bites. It doesn’t allow them to access their imagination the way they can with avatars, and it doesn’t allow personal emotional investment. Its emphasis on nonjudgmental positivity prevents animus and its bitter, exciting battles.

Brainstorming, with its image of storm troopers from faceless military platoons or free-associating advertising drones, encourages hivemind rather than originality.

A lot has changed in 50 years. The internet has made us mask-formers, not brainstormers.