Ideas are a combination of existing knowledge
I want you to visualise something, and make it as clear in your mind as possible.
In your minds eye, as clearly as you can, imagine a Kornaf.
If you need a quick reminder what that is:
A Kornaf has been around for thousands of years but has only been known to humans for the past few hundred years. Originally from the South, it quickly travelled and became popular once its unique values were better understood. Usually, it is about medium-sized. While some people like them, others have different views. Some historians estimate that for our ancestors, they presented a real danger until we found out how to control them, while others claim that they are the key to saving the world.
So what did you imagine?
Did you find it hard, or nearly impossible?
If you did, then good.
It is an essentially impossible task, because there is no such thing as a Kornaf. I made it up. And the description above is so vague as to make it impossible to associate it with anything we know from the real world.
You cannot have an idea which is not based on anything which came before, because of the way your brain works.
When the brain remembers things, it can then transform or combine previous memories together to form new ideas, some of which could be valuable creative ideas. Similar areas of the brain are used when recalling memories, as well as visualising new ideas. These new ideas are then stored as new memories (although sometimes only in short term working memory), and in turn can lead to even more new combinations with other networks.
Sometimes, this cascade can mean that a single memory can trigger a whole variety of other ideas, which in turn form an even greater number of other ideas.
For example, say you are looking for a new recipe, and you remember “apple tart”. Not only will apple tart come to your consciousness, but there will be a cascade of neural activity for “tarts” (which could trigger pastry, puff pastry, cheesy puff pastry twists) and “apple” (which could trigger orange, sweet, crunch and even iPhone, which could then trigger Facebook, Games, Text your Mom…).
So a single memory can trigger associations which nobody would have expected.
But crucially, there needs to be the initial memory (knowledge) from which the first association begins. This is why the blank page can be so hard, because there is no initial trigger to work from.
You cannot be creative without a foundation of knowledge.
This is often knowledge of a particular field or domain.
The brain needs to have a specific memory to associate with and spark divergent and convergent thinking from.
For example, it is impossible for you to write a creative poem in Japanese if you do not speak or write Japanese.
It is impossible for you to make a creative contribution in quantum physics without understanding the basics (or more likely, the cutting edge science) of quantum physics.
The irony is of course that too much knowledge can stifle creativity by locking people into a set way of thinking.
But every creative idea is based on combinations and transformations of things you already knew previously.
And who knows, maybe in the future, someone will invent a Kornaf and it will have been obvious all along.