Origin of the Term

When I sat down to write this newsletter, I started thinking about the word, “brainstorming.” It’s kind of odd, don’t you think? Being curious as to where it came from, I decided to do some quick research to see what I could learn.

I started with, which is a website devoted to the origins of English words and phrases. According to’s contributors:

Originally a brainstorm was a momentary malfunction of the mind, a ‘cerebral disturbance,’ in the words of an 1894 investigator. A bright idea was not yet ‘a brainstorm’ but a ‘brain wave,’ as far back as “Harper’s” magazine of 1890…. But by the 1920s ‘brain wave’ was subsiding, while ‘brainstorm’ took over the meaning of ‘a sudden surge of ingenuity.’. . . identified Alex Osborn, of the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, as the creator of the brainstorm session, or group brainstorming, in 1938. According to a 1955 article in Business Week, brainstorming involved “free- wheeling sessions that encourage wild ideas but prohibit any evaluation or discussion until the session is over.”

I then looked the word up in my dictionary, which defines “brainstorm” as meaning both “a spontaneous group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems,” and “a moment in which one is suddenly unable to think clearly or act sensibly.”

So how to marry these two concepts? On the one hand you have a “momentary malfunction of the mind” and on the other, a group discussion process used by businesses to solve problems for more than 50 years.

Group vs. Solo Brainstorming

The key seems to be accepting the fact that some crazy ideas are going to be generated, which is okay. The traditional brainstorming method was to get a bunch of people together, throw out a question or issue, and let the conversation go where it may. All ideas, no matter how quirky or unusual, are welcome. (Note that I said “quirky,” not “blatantly illegal” or “morally repulsive.”) The theory is that one idea may spark another, better, idea, so you want to see where the thinking goes. Crucial to the success of brainstorming is that people do not evaluate the ideas until the end of the session.

This traditional method, however, may not be the most effective. The blog my client sent to me featured Art Markman as a guest blogger. Dr. Markman is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science and a member of the editorial board of Cognitive Psychology. According to research by Dr. Markman and others, people tend to produce more ideas and more varied ideas if they work alone, rather than if they brainstorm in groups. Apparently, the first people to speak in a group setting have a huge influence on what everyone else thinks about. In other words, they can set the course of the conversation, thus constraining the creativity of subsequent ideas.

Dr. Markham suggests that people spend some time alone, writing down their ideas, before getting together in a group. Because people are often influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the status of others, he suggests writing each idea on a separate piece of paper without identifying marks so that no one will know who generated the idea. People can then pass the papers around and build on each other’s ideas. After that, they can start talking.

In addition to generating a variety of ideas, it seems that Dr. Markham’s process will also help the quieter, more introspective people in the room. Traditional group brainstorming favors extroverts, who often dominate the conversation, much to the frustration of people who prefer to have some time to think things through before speaking. Having people jot down their ideas ahead of time will provide another venue for those who are less enthusiastic to develop and share ideas in the moment.

The Lesson

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from the seemingly contradictory definitions of the term is that the occasional “cerebral disturbance” can be useful and creative. And what Dr. Markham’s research adds is that it is even more useful when allowed to germinate in a private setting before moving into a group setting.


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