Decontextualize Ideas to Make Them New

Tags: #perm

To be able to truly engage with ideas, we need to decontextualize them. Our brains try to fit ideas into existing, comfortable boxes and categories. Our impulse is to make things familiar. But, familiarity tricks us into thinking that we understand an idea—and that we like it. We short-circuit our ability to evaluate the idea critically.

To create new knowledge, we need to break free of these patterns. We need to look at things anew, from a perspective that is uncluttered by ego and is open to possibility, opportunity, and experimentation. Change our perspective makes ideas more fluid, more adaptable, and more changeable.

We can do this through divergent thinking, but we must take care to not censor or restrain our ideas.

Cognitive contradictions promote creativity. Ideas that don't make sense—called "meaning threats" by psychologists—disorient us and boost our ability to identify unique patterns. Prolonged exposure to this kind of volatility can provoke maladaptive behaviours, but objectifying our models or ideas can help us break them down and rebuild them in productive ways, as well.

Some examples of ways we do this:

  • In Modernist theatre, playwrights like Bertolt Brecht sought to render strange the familiar patterns, structure, and conventions that we take for granted, making it impossible for us to identify with the characters on stage. Just as Brecht exposed the fictive qualities of his characters and their stories, we strive to recognize that our own ideas are never natural but the product of past thinking and its paradigms.
  • Tiago Forte (2018) argues that in order to expose and disrupt our assumptions, we must continually disassociate ideas from their context. For Forte, overcoming our own paradigms of thought is the final bottleneck in critical thinking.
  • We can think, as well, of design thinking concepts like "reframing the problem" or "depatterning." This, too, revolves around the belief that we can make more effective decisions by creating processes and structures that force us to treat situations as novel. This can help overturn our brain's reliance on heuristics.
  • In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, there's an exercise in which you turn an image upside-down. This helps break the system of symbols that we rely on to draw things that are familiar to us (e.g. features of a face) and focus instead on its shape and its contours as they actual appear, rather than as we have internalized them.



Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Sönke Ahrens, 2017.

Miller, Mark, Kathryn Nave, George Deane, and Andy Clark. “Use Uncertainty to Leverage the Power of Your Predictive Brain.” Aeon. Accessed October 21, 2020.

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