A Network of Ideas: Harnessing Social & Neural Connections

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When you network, do you deliberately share and collect new ideas? Do you seek out opportunities for collaboration?

According to Steven Johnson, good ideas don’t just appear from nowhere. Rather, they build on existing knowledge and ideas. New ideas proliferate in networks. The more connected you are, the more you’ll find and develop good ideas.

Read more to learn how you can plug into and benefit from a network of ideas around you.

A Network of Ideas

According to Johnson, having a network of ideas that build and connect with each other is essential to come up with good ideas. Networks can take many different forms, including physical communities, online spaces, or anything that facilitates collaboration between people. They can even include the networks that comprise our own brains. Johnson suggests that, the more people who are involved in a network, the more effective they’ll be at spawning and promoting ideas.

(Shortform note: The professional world has long recognized the benefits of networks in innovation, but some experts suggest that more people in a network doesn’t automatically mean greater productivity, as not everyone participates equally. Often, a very small number of people end up being responsible for a disproportionate amount of the work, which can lead to numerous problems including collaborative overload—when collaboration becomes so draining that it begins to reduce productivity. Experts recommend that, instead of pushing employees to collaborate as much as possible, employers should consider employees’ personal reserves of time and energy and only encourage a manageable amount of collaboration.)

One of the most important networks Johnson discusses is the city. He points out that, in the age of the hunter-gatherer, we remained in small groups that rarely met or collaborated with each other. In these environments, even if some lone individual had a great idea, it was rarely shared widely or improved upon by others since people had no means of record-keeping. After the development of agriculture, we began to gather in large groups, forming communities that grew into cities. These cities led to a great confluence of different thoughts and perspectives, and importantly, the storing and recording of ideas through common knowledge or written language.

(Shortform note: The other benefit of agriculture and the communal living it enabled is that only some people had to be involved in food production, as opposed to the hunter-gatherer era when all members of a group had to work together to find food. The more people gathered in agricultural communities, the more people had free time to work on other things. So not only do networks help in the sharing of ideas, but they also allow people to delegate labor so that some people can keep the community alive while others create innovations. This same principle is reflected in modern workplaces when jobs are specialized to certain tasks within an organization.)

In recent years, the internet has proven to be an effective tool for networking ideas, as well. The internet provides immediate access to vast amounts of information and, unlike city networking, it can be accessed no matter where you are geographically. 

(Shortform note: The internet was especially crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many companies experienced a shift to a work-from-home structure, which inhibited in-person collaboration. Collaboration tools like Google Docs, Zoom, and Slack helped facilitate remote teamwork and allowed networks to continue to flourish in the workplace.)

We rely on networks between people, but we also rely on networks within our brains. The brain consists of a hundred billion neurons with 100 trillion connections between them. Like a network of people, the power of these neural networks comes from the connections rather than the individual neurons. These connections and their ability to change and form new patterns—an ability known as plasticity—are the key to the mind’s ability to learn and grow.

(Shortform note: While neural connections create networks with massive cognitive potential, not all connections are equally useful. Research suggests that the strongest neural connections are the ones between neurons that are already similar in function or are in close proximity to each other—sort of like how we are more likely to connect with people who are like us or near us. However, the brain’s large number of weaker neural connections plays an important part in brain plasticity, since they allow the brain to adapt much more quickly to new input than if it had to create new connections from scratch.)

Now that you understand how ideas form, you can apply that understanding to better harness ideation.

A Network of Ideas: Harnessing Social & Neural Connections

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Here's what you'll find in our full Where Good Ideas Come From summary:

  • How the world's best inventions grow from minor inklings
  • How capitalism negatively impacts innovation
  • Why making mistakes is essential to great innovations

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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