Weather patterns that are all in our minds

Can we come up with a better word than 'brainstorming'?

Swirling at the edge of a piece in this space a few weeks ago, about local government officials' use of management buzzwords, was a little squall over what some would call a misplaced sense of political correctness.

The town council of Tunbridge Wells in the south of England had reportedly told its staff to avoid using the term "brainstorming." For reasons I'll leave to your imagination, the councilors worried the term could offend some people. "Thought showers" was offered instead. However, the National Society for Epilepsy reported that it had surveyed its members and no offense was taken. So there!

Still, not everyone is sold on "brainstorming" as the best possible metaphor for that pleasurable activity of generating ideas, either to solve a problem or to create something new.

Productivity guru Tony Buzan has started to use the term "brain blooming," the idea being evidently that a succession of blossoms makes for a happier kind of mental imagery than the concept of a "storm," complete with lightning bolts and thunderclaps.

The concept of the "bolt out of the blue" has its place, though, in the vocabulary of invention as well as of love. And my own quibble with "brainstorming" is more about the "brain" than the "storm." My concern is that gratuitous use of body-parts metaphors can be, well, a little mindless.

Brainstorming is a forceful term, though, and there isn't an easy alternative. We have plenty of terms for thinking, even for thinking deeply – meditate, ponder, reflect, contemplate (which has a connection to temple, I've just discovered).

But none of these quite does the job for describing the freewheeling, uninhibited generating of ideas. "He had a thought shower" sounds uncomfortably close to "He poured cold water all over my suggestion."

The serious pros have the verb to ideate, which means "to form an idea of; imagine or conceive" or "to conceive mental images; think." But it's not exactly in the vernacular.

"Two, four, six, eight –

Let's take time to ideate!"

Hmm, not quite. Another "brain" idiom I would chuck out in a minute for a good substitute is "to pick someone's brain." It means, of course, to ask questions of someone knowledgeable in a certain subject. The process can be very useful to the picker and not at all painful – and sometimes even flattering – to the pickee.

But it's a ghastly turn of phrase, and whenever I hear it, boom, there I am back in ninth-grade biology class with my specimen frog. Not a happy moment, either for me or for the frog.

Another body-parts metaphor I wouldn't miss is brain trust, used to describe the close advisers who work to get a candidate elected. Thus Rolling Stone last month had an article titled "Obama's Brain Trust."

Over the centuries, scientists have located mental functions in different parts of the body. Some of these ideas live on in familiar expressions – take heart, meaning to keep one's courage up, for instance. (Courage derives from the Latin word for "heart.") Others just sound odd – such as the idea of the kidneys as the seat of the affections.

A friend of mine visiting a church that uses the English Standard Version of the Bible was a bit surprised to hear the familiar story of King Solomon asking God for wisdom ("an understanding heart" in the King James Version) rendered as "an understanding mind." The mind understands, but in a very different way from the heart.

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