Combinatorial Knowledge and Reading in Spheres

Girl reading

Knowledge expresses itself as a fusion of pre-existing ideas. Much like a 26 character alphabet allows us to write the sonnets of Shakespeare or the lyrics to Stupid Hoe (thanks Nicki Minaj…), our own thinking involves permutations of basic elements into fascinating combinations.

We are experts in synthesizing our exposure and experiences in the world into new forms of expression – true artists realize this and embrace it as part of the creative process. Picasso said ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. This wasn’t a proclamation of intellectual theft, but rather an acknowledgement that ideas develop through collisions with one another.

This is the essence of our remix culture and a trending motif behind art and science as we enter the 21st century.

Once acknowledged, how can we capitalize on this feature of our mind in order to facilitate growth?

A strategy that I’ve developed recently (and recommend here) is to outline tiered reading structures that embrace the synthetic nature of our thoughts to streamline creative insight.

This reading structure involves defining key spheres of knowledge that you’re interested in. Then, you devote a portion of your reading time each day to exposing yourself to something in each sphere. This allows your mind to blend the ideas and words together, and give new perspectives to your life and the world around you.

For me as a cognitive neuroscientist working on spatial cognition, I’ve identified the following three areas –

The specialized sphere. This is where I list readings that are specific to my work. It mainly involves peer-reviewed articles covering novel research experiments in spatial cognition and neuro-imaging. Anything that deals with methodology and the operationalization of spatial concepts in cognitive psychology.

The adjacent sphere. This is where I list any readings that are not directly related to my topic of interest, but that are related ideas or meta-structures for my thinking. Books on network theory, general systems philosophy, embodied cognition all find home here. The point of this sphere is to give some adjacent context to my specialized readings, allowing the ideas within to find new synthetic frames to develop. Steven Johnson in his book Where Ideas Come From has an excellent discussion on the necessity of adjacency in the emergence of ideas.

The remote (but interesting) sphere. This is my bucket list of books. Novels, ideas, anything that I want to be exposed to before I die. Currently, it’s filled with books on sci-fi civilizations, the secrets of happiness, stock market & investing and novels about parallel universes. The key here is to follow your interests, acknowledging that highly importance and influential ideas often emerge by following hunches, interests and everything that you love.

The amazing thing about this reading strategy isn’t that creativity is accelerated (although it is), but that you start to see just how connected and networked every idea is in our world.


  1. Your post, Combinatorial Knowledge and Reading in Spheres, is really well written and insightful. Glad I found your website, warm regards from Nikita!

  2. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Many thanks, However I am
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  3. This article is a gem. Until recently, I’ve felt the Remote Sphere as something which took away from my ‘important’ reading. An indulgence. But of course, you never know from where you’ll draw your next great inspiration. I’ll read my mystery novels and biographies sans guilt from now on. Love this blog! Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks Magnus. I had the same impression for a while. I read a really cool book by Steven Johnson called Where Good Ideas Come From that got me thinking about how ideas interlace with one another. After studying my own idea generation process, I realized that a lot of my inspiration was sourced from areas not directly related to my work, but central to my interests nonetheless.


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