Known Unknowns: Rumsfeld and the Johari Window

As a rule of thumb, I tend to steer clear of quoting US Republican warmongers, but I’ll make an exception for Donald Rumsfeld’s wonderful “known unknowns”, a slippery phrase introduced to the world during a news briefing back in 2002 when the then Secretary of Defence attempted to explain the lack of public evidence linking Baghdad with terrorist networks. “Known unknowns” comes to mind whenever I think about where ideas come from – I know they come from somewhere (and I’m pretty sure it isn’t an isolated cave in a forgotten corner of Iraq) but exactly where remains a mystery. To quote the late, great Leonard Cohen, “if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often”.

Scientific research has made some interesting progress in understanding the neurological processes involved in ideas generation. Leo Widrich’s blogpost, Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity, offers a handy summary of some of the more recent thinking on the subject. He quotes a study by Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu, who tracked the brain activity of rappers free-styling. They found that  improvisation shows lower activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls ‘executive functions’, “allow[ing] more natural de-focussed attention and uncensored processes to occur”. At the same time, “the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible to [sic] learn association, context, events and emotional responses was extremely active”.

I love the idea of ‘de-focussed attention’, for me it perfectly captures the weirdly paradoxical nature of ideas generation. On the one hand, attention and effort are required, but on the other hand, the best ideas seem to sneak up from the sides when I’m not directly focussing on the issue, but playing around with unrelated topics, metaphors, or just thinking about something else. I’ve also encountered a few articles recently about how useful improvisation can be in ideas generation, which would be consistent with Braun and Liu’s findings (check out Art Museum Teaching and Can Scorpions Smoke in particular). I’ve always kept improvisation at arm’s length, but I know others who swear by it. My brain understands that it must be a great way of tapping into ‘uncensored processes’, however, the rest of me would rather hide under my desk than participate.

Thinking about the unknown source of ideas also brings to mind the Johari window, a tool developed in 1955 by American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, to improve self-awareness and interpersonal relationships. It’s used frequently in both counselling and corporate team-development settings. The window consists of four regions displayed in a 2×2 grid:

  • Open: known to self and others – declarative, an understanding of the self that is shared.
  • Hidden: known to self and unknown to others – private thoughts that only serious amounts of wine can extract. This area decreases through disclosure.
  • Blind: unknown to self and known to others – the worse one! Aspects of our character or behaviour that are obvious to those around us while we remain ignorant. This area decreases through feedback.
  • Unknown: unknown to self and others – can take everyone by surprise and contains deeply-buried experiences that still exert an influence. This area is the most mysterious and decreases through self-discovery.


The aim of self-awareness is to increase the ‘open area’, although in reality these quadrants are in flux and change frequently.  It’s the power of the unknown that interests me most; I think it’s a useful metaphor for discussing how we generate ideas and tap into our own creativity. Understanding the role of others in our own creative process is also useful. When do I need time alone to generate ideas? When do I need others to push my thinking? What role do I play alongside others in generating ideas? These relationships can take many different forms, for example: some people are like an ideas sprinkler system, sputtering and spraying their thinking in every direction; some people require an external catalyst, but can then generate their own innovative thinking by building on those foundations; some people are network builders and generate new ideas by bringing innovative thinkers together; and some people are good at grounding ideas by pulling them down from a floaty place up in the clouds, and transforming them into achievable actions. The more aware we are of our own creative process, the more efficient we can be in harnessing its potential.

In totally unrelated news, my blog has been very kindly nominated for the UK Blog Awards (art and culture category). There is a public vote from 5-19 December; after that, the top eight in each category go forward to a judging panel round. So if you like what you read and can spare a couple of minutes, I’d appreciate your support. To vote, go to


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