[Question] Why is there a “clogged drainpipe” effect in idea generation?

I’ve no­ticed some­thing cu­ri­ous about cre­ativity. (Like when do­ing the Bab­ble challenges, or just when think­ing in gen­eral.)

I have a bad idea. (“Send an ob­ject to the moon us­ing a bird in a space­suit”) I don’t write it down, in­stead try­ing to gen­er­ate other ideas. Yet the bad idea keeps lin­ger­ing on my mind. Even­tu­ally, I say “okay, fine, I will write you down!” and sud­denly there’s a sense of flow and re­lax­ation, as if though new space has opened up for other ideas.

Ed Sheeran de­scribes some­thing similar:

If I was ad­vis­ing any­one to start song­writ­ing, I’d just say: write any­thing that comes into your head. Any­thing. Just get stuff out there. I kinda treat song­writ­ing as a dirty tap in an old house. When you run a dirty tap, it’s clogged up, bit of dirt in it, bits of mud. You run it, mud’s go­ing to come out, a lit­tle bit of wa­ter, a bit more mud, and then sud­denly it’s go­ing to start flow­ing clean wa­ter.

You’ve got to un­clog the pipes when you’re song­writ­ing. So just start writ­ing bad songs. Write songs for the sake of it. Write a song a day. Just sit down, pick a chord, write a song, get that song out of you, and the more and more you do it, the more and more you un­clog the pipes.

I’d say, if you want to start song­writ­ing, just start. Don’t worry too much about writ­ing the best songs pos­si­ble. If any­one wants to listen to growth, go on YouTube, type in “Ed Sheeran Ad­dicted” and you’ll hear a song that I did when I was 12. And the singing is dread­ful, the song­writ­ing is dread­ful, the gui­tar play­ing is dread­ful, and now I’m here talk­ing to you as a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian.

When I did the “100 ways to light a can­dle” Bab­ble challenge yes­ter­day, some­thing similar hap­pened. I had the lin­ger­ing idea of “I could ask some­one else to do light the can­dle”, but also thought “That’s a bor­ing an­swer”. Yet it kept lin­ger­ing. Fi­nally, I wrote down “There’s a gen­eral class of strate­gies around get­ting the help of other peo­ple”. And sud­denly that un­blocked a whole range of similar ideas—some of which I re­ally liked, like:

“De­stroy a bunch of other light sources in the world, thereby strongly in­creas­ing the in­cen­tive for oth­ers to light this can­dle”


“Go around the neigh­bour­hood, find­ing a bunch of lit can­dles, place them next to you in a beau­tiful pat­tern EXCEPT that in a sym­me­try-break­ing place is your can­dle. Wait un­til some­one fixes it.”

It was as if though the ini­tial thought was a bunch of junk clog­ging the pipe. But by reify­ing the idea that this was an en­tire class of strate­gies, and writ­ing the bor­ing an­swer down, I sud­denly opened up for the wa­ter to flow freely through the rest of the pipe.


What on earth is go­ing on here? Why would minds work like this? What does it tell us about the struc­ture of hu­man cog­ni­tion?


Also, I’m re­ally ex­cited about LessWrong’s new pre­dic­tion fea­ture, so let’s make some use of it: