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Triggered ideas: finding inspiration

Where do find your ideas? Are they buried deep in you and suddenly percolate up? Are they glimmers that appear over time until they coalesce into ‘an idea’? Are they reactions to something you see, hear, or do?

Likely, you’ve experienced all three and certainly all are the result of accumulated experiences. The last one is special though, in being what we can call ‘triggered’. Something triggered your emotions or imagination and you acted in response.

Scientists are often triggered by things around them, just like anyone else. Science is an accumulative process: we are always adding to our knowledge and building on past findings – either to support or refute. Anything can be a scientific trigger: a new or old research paper, a talk at a conference, something said in the lab, a coffee chat with colleagues, looking at the sun – anything. A useful trigger might bring about an idea for a new experiment, a solution for a seemingly intractable problem, or act to connect two disparate different dots of fact that opens a new door. The ability of triggers to work positively on the brain and creativity is why many creatives thumb through pictures or books, or scroll the internet for the ‘best of’ when needing to get past a certain block. Filling the brain with new stimuli can often spark new thoughts.

Some triggers are life experiences that alter one’s course – as in the unwelcomed onset of a severe illness, an event that has driven a pantheon of research activities, as finding answers is deeply personal.

The power of triggers lies behind the advice to read as widely as possible and ask as many questions as possible. Seek out input, you never know where you’ll find it, but you’ll find it more often if you believe in the search. Scientists do the same when they read the literature, go to conferences, and pick the brains of colleagues. A great source of triggers can be the questions asked after you give a formal presentation. While many questions are just requests to fill in details you might have had to skip over in the talk to stick to time, some link your work with other work or otherwise suggest new and profitable avenues of investigation. Many triggers lead to collaborations. Only by joining forces to bring together two or more ways to generate, interpret, or process data can new knowledge be generated.

The job of a scientist is not only to test and prove particular facts, but to think up new hypotheses in the first place. The best scientists are question generators. Being open to new ideas, fresh perspectives, and connections between distantly related fields just accelerates this process. In fact, most scientific careers are based on asking the right questions – the ones that lead to the history making discoveries.

That first trigger can focus the mind such that new patterns that were once invisible become apparent. Once a new ‘frame’ has been set in the mind, you may find many more details falling into place. This is the beauty of finding a new ‘rule’ that explains many observations. Certainly, this happened to Darwin once he first got a serious inkling of the process of evolution. Once in sway, he collected myriad lines of evidence, even designing many bespoke experiments, for example on the breeding of pigeons, to support his theory.

Learning to seek out triggers as a scientist means going beyond human knowledge into the unknown. Scientists operate at the coal face of knowledge, interrogating Nature herself. You can’t ask a living soul the answer to your question because you are the only one thinking about it – no one knows yet. This is the key fact PhD students need to absorb – you are the world expert on what you know. You have to design an experiment and discover the answer yourself. This is the true excitement of working in science.

Triggers can get noisy, though, given the information deluge modern society suffers. A related skill to cultivate is prioritization. The best researchers have rubrics for weighing up triggers. Early career scientists in particular can be lured by a million triggers taking them in a million directions. This is a sign of an open and active mind, but it is also an impossibility to take them all forward. One must learn to pick what is do-able and achievable. Often scientific careers are made on the basis of such decisions – dead end or gateway? This is the fundamental nature of research.

Some triggers are life experiences that alter one’s course – as in the unwelcomed onset of a severe illness, an event that has driven a pantheon of research activities, as finding answers is deeply personal.

In time, your research will ideally trigger others. Sometimes a finding is so consequential it spawns whole new fields, as in the case of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He lived too early to be in the running for a Nobel Prize, but the quality of triggers is certainly in the notion of picking Nobel Prize recipients.

This column, The Double Helix, started with triggers involving ‘DNA research breakthroughs’, as in the article that launched this project. In time, triggers diversified to include how we can use scientific method and thinking to improve our everyday lives, for example to self-study our way to fixes for back pain, the process of science writing, and most recently the science of language acquisition. New triggers are brewing.

Some of the best triggers are questions, as following up means providing something that is useful. If you have been triggered by this article or any other in this column and wish to know more about a topic in DNA research or science in general, please say so in the comments below. Equally helpful, please think about commenting on any particularly fruitful trigger you’ve acted on in the past.

Featured Image Credit: “Thought, Idea, Innovation, Imagination, Inspiration” by TeroVesalainen. CC0 via Pixabay.

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