Leonardo Da Vinci discovered that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming connections between them. Try an experiment. Pick eight random words and give the list to someone or to a small group (for example: flower pot, baby, glass, grasshopper, coffee pot, box, toast and garage). Ask them to divide the words into two groups without giving them any rationale for the division. You will discover that people will come up with some very creative classifications. They will group them according to “words with the letter o,” “things that touch water,” “objects made in factories” and so on. No one ever says there is no connection, they invent them.
No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other. In tetherball, a ball is fastened to a slender cord suspended from the top of a pole. Players bat the ball around the pole, attempting to wind its cord around the pole above a certain point. Obviously, a tethered ball on a long string is able to move in many different directions, but it cannot get away from the pole. If you whack at it long enough, eventually you will wind the cord around the pole. This is a closed system. Like the tetherball, if you focus on two subjects for a period of time, you will see relationships and connections that will trigger new ideas and thoughts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking. Though we seldom think about it, making random connections in such a manner are conceptual creative acts.
THE EXQUISITE CORPSE: Making random connections were popular techniques used by Jackson Pollock and other Surrealist artists to create conceptual combinations in thought and art. Artists in a group would take turns, each contributing any word that occurred to them in a “sentence” without seeing what the others had written. The resulting sentence would eventually become a combination of concepts that they would study and interpret hoping to get a novel insight or a glimpse of some deeper meaning. The technique is named “The Exquisite Corpse” after a sentence which happened to contain those words.
BLUEPRINT FOR THE EXQUISITE CORPSE:
•Have the group bounce ideas and thoughts about the subject off each other for five to ten minutes.
•Then, ask the participants to think about what was discussed and silently write one word that occurs to them on an index card.
•Collect and shuffle the cards.
•Lay out the cards one at a time in a straight line.
Combine the words into one sentence.
•Participants can rearrange the words until they are satisfied. Words can be added by the group to help the sentence make sense.
•The group studies the final sentence and builds an idea or ideas from it.
EXAMPLE: An Alzheimer’s organization planned to have an auction to raise money for their cause. They planned an elaborate, sophisticated evening and looked for unusual items they could auction.
They tried the “exquisite corpse” technique. Some of the words they came up with were people, cruises, creative, furniture, charity, designer, custom, art, thin air, and celebrities. One of the connections was: create – art – thin air, and it triggered their idea which was the sensation of the auction. They sold an idea for an artwork that doesn’t exist. They talked a local conceptual artist into describing an idea for an artwork. The idea was placed in an envelope and auctioned for $28,000. Legal ownership was indicated by a typed certificate, which specified that the artwork (10,0000 lines, each ten inches long, covering a wall) be drawn with a black pencil. The owner has the right to reproduce this piece as many times as he likes.
When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects (e.g., the Alzheimer’s group connecting thin air and art), your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene even though there is no dog or leash. In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea. This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge and why Sigmund Freud used a healthy dose of imagination and “free creation” in his interpretative work.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.