Brainstorming as a group is one of the most recognized methods of generating new ideas. From high school and university to the highest levels of management, brainstorming is considered a key tactic in problem solving and promoting creative thought. Biological research, predicated on originality and new ideas, is one of the many areas that stands to benefit from brainstorming; however, because of the individualistic and critical nature of scientists, it is not always the preferred method of developing ideas. When deciding to apply brainstorming to the lab, it’s always best to dig deep and understand how it can best be applied to your team of researchers.
Does brainstorming in science actually work?
Scientists are, by nature, individualistic entities who continually work on projects independent from others within the same lab, department, and institution. At least one scientist, Dr. M. Castillo of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues against the idea of brainstorming when addressing scientific questions and developing new ideas. In an article titled “Do Not Brainstorm!” Dr. Castillo provides many salient points regarding why science may not benefit from brainstorming, at least in a classic sense. In his article, he addresses the basic principles of brainstorming:1
- No criticism of any ideas
- Think “up” (bigger ideas are better than smaller ones)
- Combine and improve ideas with the 1 + 1 = 3 rule
- Quantity is desirable
The most glaring of these principles, as Dr. Castillo points out, is rule #1, which appears to clash with one of the most valued aspects of scientific research, constructive criticism. He also takes issue with the idea of quantity over quality as well as the concept of brainstorming as a whole: “What can we do to improve creativity? First, do not tell a person to be ‘creative.’ All that does is cause people’s minds to freeze up.” He posits that thinking outside of what one’s friends and family would come up with leads to more creativity than anything that could be accomplished by a group.1
While the critiques posited by Dr. Castillo are inherently negative towards brainstorming, they certainly do not invalidate the utility of brainstorming in the lab. While it is nearly impossible to judge the level of creativity obtained from such sessions, one group from the Last Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi, India, decided to perform a study investigating the effectiveness of brainstorming for postgraduate teaching and learning. With a small sample of 10 postgraduate students participating in four brainstorming sessions over a span of 10 months, they found that post-session test scores increased for each session. Though 96% of participants thought the sessions were time-consuming, nearly the same proportion thought the sessions stimulated critical thinking (89%) and should be held regularly for postgrad teaching (96%).2
So, how should brainstorming be optimized?
When applying brainstorming sessions to the lab, it’s essential to consider several factors, each of which can help optimize the session and avoid wasteful interactions:
- Understand the group’s needs – Before brainstorming can occur, the goal of the session must be as clear as possible. In science, everyone likely has their own interests and motives when searching for new ideas. However, without any specific needs in mind, ideas generated during brainstorming may become merely that: ideas. Of course, that may be the goal of certain sessions, but realistically, if your lab is willing to spend time brainstorming new ideas, they should be at least somewhat relevant to the lab’s research goals, which should be clearly defined.
- Think critically and be critical of others – To reiterate the main point of Dr. Castillo’s article: typical brainstorming does not account for criticism.1 In science, however, criticism is essential to refining hypotheses and understanding how biological systems work. When devising brainstorming sessions, it is therefore helpful to ensure that participants not only provide new ideas but also come prepared with potential counterpoints to their own and others’ ideas. Participants should create a back-and-forth network of ideas and conflict, searching for a logical flow and consensus around which hypotheses can be formulated and propagated.3
- Utilize the three Es3 – Aleksander Prominski and Bozhi Tian from the University of Chicago posit that three processes can help scientists fully realize the potential of brainstorming: 1) extract unexpected, diverse, and reliable information; 2) expose unusual but logically sound connections; and 3) evaluate the new possibilities that evolve from these connections. In incorporating the three Es into brainstorming sessions, it’s crucial to consider novel techniques and technology that can enhance and grow new ideas. This is important when reviewing older literature, as many previous connections from articles may not have been fully formed due to the lack of such technology.
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- Goswami B, et al. Evaluation of Brainstorming Session as a Teaching-learning Tool among Postgraduate Medical Biochemistry Students. Int J Appl Basic Med Res. 2017 Dec;7(Suppl 1):S15-S18.
- Castillo M. Do Not Brainstorm! AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2013;34(7):1293-1294.
- Prominski A, Tian B. Quiet Brainstorming: Expecting the Unexpected. Matter. 2020;3(3):594-597.