Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’



Think of how Albert Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by fantasizing about people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces. This space he imagined is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Einstein also fantasized about a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves, which lead him to the understanding of acausality, a feature of quantum mechanics. A caricature of special relativity (the relativistic idea that people in motion appear to age more slowly) is based on his fantasy of a world in which all the houses and offices are on wheels, constantly zooming around the streets (with advance collision-avoidance systems).

Einstein summarized the value of using your imagination to fantasize best when he said “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it. The thought experiment is attributed to the German Gestalt psychologist Karl Dunker.

One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

Now it is, of course, impossible for the monk to duplicate himself and walk up the mountain and down the mountain at the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposition of one image over the other, that leads to the solution. The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place.

Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and a fantasy imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time.

Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. Einstein, for example, was able to imagine alternatives to the sacred Newtonian notion of absolute time, and discovered that time is relative to your state of motion. Think of the thousands of scientists who must have come close to Einstein’s insight but lacked the imagination to see it because of the accepted dogma that time is absolute, and who must have considered it impossible to contemplate any theory.  

Einstein described his favorite creative thinking technique as “combinatory play” in a 1945 letter to his friend Jacque Hadamard as the essential feature in the way he thought. Our brains are conditioned to associate similar subjects but have great difficulty are forcing connections between two dissimilar and unrelated subjects or images that seem to have no associations. Our educated and practiced ability to associate similar concepts limits our ability to be creative (apples and oranges are fruit). We form ‘associative walls’ that makes us very efficient at finding common associations  but it discourages us from looking for connections between dissimilar subjects.

Overcoming these associative habits is probably one of the most important skills when it comes to creative and innovative thought. It is no coincidence that the most creative and innovative people through history are experts at forcing new connections between dissimilar subjects through combinatory play. I’ve traced the technique back to Leonardo da Vinci who wrote in his notebooks “It is not possible to think simultaneously of two subjects, no matter how dissimilar, without connections being formed.


Following is an example of how I used the technique with a publisher who was looking for more innovative ways to publish books. The question I asked him to think about was “What is impossible to do in your industry, but if it were possible would change the nature of your business forever?”

The publisher kept a dream diary. He told me that when he had an interesting problem, he would write “key” words in a notebook by his bed before he went to sleep. When he awoke, the first thing he would do was to try to recall his dreams and record everything he could remember. Then he told me about a dream he had in the past that fascinated him.

He dreamed he was planting seeds in a large field. He nurtured the plants as they grew.  Each plant grew into a large cabbagelike head. When the plant ripened, the leaves unfolded revealing a book. Each plant produced a book. Excitedly, he raced from row to row opening each book. They were all different. Some were fiction, others were nonfiction, children’s books, coffee table books, dictionaries, biographies. He flipped through the books laughing and laughing. That was the answer to my question he said. It is impossible to grow books.

He and I discussed the meaning of the dream about growing books. We realized the impossibility of growing books but listed all the connections we could think of between growing plants and publishing books. One connection was that trees are planted and harvested for the manufacture of paper and paper is used to publish books.

Why not publish books that become trees? This would be a way to educate and inspire young readers about the need for ecologically responsible behavior. The idea the publisher decided to pursue is to publish storybooks for children about trees. The book can then be planted (planting instructions are included) and will grow back into a tree. The books will be handstitched, made from recycled acid-free paper and biodegradable inks and the cover is embedded with poplar tree seeds. Each copy comes with planting instructions. Readers are encouraged to plant and name their tree and to care for it as it grows. The marketing department plans to have the book displayed in bookshops, where it can be seen germinating by customers.


In another example, Toyota engineers believed that the manufacture of an automobile that is a live, breathing creature is impossible. The attributes of living creatures are, for example, breathing, growing older, reproducing, feeling emotions, and so on. They brainstormed for possible connections between attributes of living creatures and autos.

The Japanese engineers for Toyota decided to develop a car that they say can express moods ranging from angry to happy to sad. The car can raise or lower its body height and ‘‘wag’’ its antenna, and it comes equipped with illuminated hood designs, capable of changing colors, that are meant to look like eyebrows, eyes, and even tears. The car will try to approximate the feelings of its driver by drawing on data stored in an onboard computer. So, for example, if another car swerves into an expressive car’s lane, the right combination of deceleration, brake pressure, and defensive steering, when matched with previous input from the driver, will trigger an ‘‘angry’’ look.

The angry look is created as the front end lights up with glowering red U-shaped lights, the headlights become hooded at a forty-five-degree angle, and downward-sloping “eyebrow” lights glow crimson. A good-feeling look is lighting up orange, and one headlight winks at the courteous driver and wags its antennae. A sad-feeling look is blue with “tears” dripping from the headlights.

Stretching  your  imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with combinatory play between unrelated subjects makes it possible to create ideas you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………Michael Michalko is a renowned creativity expert whose books describe creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to get their breakthrough ideas. 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.




Zoologist Desmond Morris performed some interesting experiments with chimpanzees which may provide some insight into intention. In one experiment, chimps were given canvas and paint. They immediately began to paint balanced patterns of color. In fact, some art critics saw incredible similarities between their work and the work of abstractionists. The chimps became so interested in painting and it absorbed them so completely, that they had little interest left for sex, food, or other activities. Similar experiments were performed with children. Their behavior was remarkably like that of the chimps.

It seems to indicate that there is a natural desire to create, to accomplish, to perform, yet, somehow this desire fades as we become adults. An extension of Morris’s experiment involved rewarding the chimps for producing the paintings. Very soon their work began to degenerate until they produced the bare minimum that would satisfy the experimenter. They became bored and uninterested in creating.

A similar behavior was observed in young children as they became “self-conscious” of the kind of painting they believed they were supposed to do. This was generally indicated to them by subtle and implicit rewards, such as praise and approval and the need to conform to what other children were doing. The creative act of painting no longer has meaning in itself. It now has become an activity to experience satisfaction in the form of an external reward or reinforcement. Eventually, the children learn to seek only satisfying words of praise from others, and to collude with others in exchanging flattering remarks that lead to mutual satisfaction.


Here’s an interesting experiment which illustrates the power of internal and external forces on awareness and attention. First, have someone blindfold you. Then make a volitional movement of your choice, for example, walking in figure eights. Make a variety of complex movements. Do something that requires thought. Next, while still blindfolded, have someone passively move you around the room in the same amount of time and then stops you at a certain point.

The next day, have someone blindfold you again and then reproduce the movements of the day before. You will find that your performance accuracy is far better when you made the movements of your choice as compared with situations in which you were passively moved by someone else.

In the first case, because you took an active role and allowed yourself to behave naturally, you became “aware” and “attentive.” This created some passion for the exercise. In the second case, you were passively led around, which did not create much interest or passion.

We are taught to be linear thinkers and to have a fundamentally mechanistic view of the world. We are taught to look for external causes and effects and that these cause-and-effects are predictable and knowable and predictable. This kind of thing emphasizes external control.   For example, flip the light switch, and the light goes on. If the light doesn’t go on, there is an uncomplicated explanation – burned-out bulb, blown fuse, wire down in a storm, or a bad switch.

This sense for external control is what freezes thinking and what prevents the “free” play of awareness and attention. Just as water is metamorphosed into ice, your thinking, which should be fluid and free, becomes frozen. All one has to do is desire and visualize outcome and the creative forces in you will act through you as if you were a medium.  Then you will see that your brain and body are free to do the work naturally and will find the way for you to produce the desired outcome.

CELLO Musicologists say that the cellos made by Stradivarius are even more impressive instruments than his violins. Some years ago, some physicists – experts in Newtonian mechanics, especially the laws of acoustics – analyzed the cello. They studied the wood used to make it, the mixture used to make the glue, the recipe for the varnish, the number of coats of varnish, and so on. They researched all stringed instruments and cataloged the dimensions and sounds.

They concluded that the cellos made by Stradivarius are too small. The ideal cello, according to their research, ought to be three times the size of a violin, but the Stradivarius cellos are noticeably smaller. The scientists concluded that they could make a better cello by making it bigger. So they did, and it sounded awful. Not only wasn’t it anywhere near the quality of a Stradivarius, it wasn’t even as good as the mass-produced cellos that copied the size of a Stradivarius. So, what was the secret Stradivarius knew that the acoustical experts didn’t?

Stradivarius had no secret.

There are just too many interacting variables to reduce the making of a cello to a formula. The quality of the wood makes a difference, of course, but once a piece of wood is cut for the back of the cello, there will never be another piece of wood exactly like that one. Stradivarius had the attitude and belief that building a good cello requires the maker to have the attitude and belief in one’s ability to do so.

What Stradivarius knew that the acoustical experts didn’t is what to do about it. He knew what to change to adjust for the differences in the wood or in the number of pieces of wood used for the ribs or in the number of coats of varnish.

The point is understood by one of the best modern makers of stringed instruments, who, when asked if he could build a Stradivarius, deemed the question absurd. “I can only build my own cello” was his response.


Michael Michalko is a creative expert and author of Thinkertoys, Cracking Creativity, Creative Thinkering and ThinkPak. You can review his books at




Read aloud the following colors as fast as you can: STROOP.1

Now quickly read aloud the colors of the following words …
not the words themselves, but the colors in which the words are shown:


Difficult isn’t it?  No matter how hard you concentrate, no matter how hard you focus, you will find that it is almost impossible to read the colors aloud without becoming confused.  The word patterns have become so strong in your brain that they are activated automatically whether you want them to be or not.

Now read the following paragraph.

“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.  The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.  Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we bgien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet to see.  The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but preecsievs the wrod as a wlohe.  We do tihs ucnsoniuscoly wuithot tuhoght.”

Amazing, isn’t it?  How are you able to see and understand a group of jumbled letters as words? How can you find meaning in a mass of jumbled letters? Show this paragraph to any child   just learning to read and they will tell you that what you think are words is nonsense. This is because the word patterns in their brain have not yet become rigid.

The dominant factor in the way our minds work is the buildup of patterns that enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These patterns are based on our past experiences in life, education, and work that have been successful in the past. We look at 6 X 6 and 36 appears automatically without conscious thought. We brush our teeth in the morning, get dressed, drive to work without conscious thought because our thinking patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately

But this same patterning makes it hard for us to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems, especially when confronted with unusual data. In our paragraph, our word patterns are so hard wired that even a small bit of information (the first and last letter of a word) activates the entire word pattern. We end up seeing what our brains expect to see instead of what is right before our eyes.

We are instructed in schools to think reproductively by memorizing formulae, systems, and methodologies that others have used successfully in the past. This instruction has created strong thinking patterns. When confronted with problems, these thinking patterns are activated with even a small bit of information and lead our thinking in a clearly defined direction toward something that has worked in the past for someone else, excluding all other approaches.

Think of your mind as a dish of jelly which has settled so that its surface is perfectly flat.  When information enters the mind, it self-organizes.  It is like pouring warm water on the dish of jelly with a teaspoon.  Imagine the warm water being poured on the jelly dish and then gently tipped so that it runs off.  After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the jelly would be full of ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water (information) would start to automatically flow into the preformed grooves.   After a while, it would take only a bit of information (water) to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain.  Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated.  The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas.  Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again.

Creativity occurs when we tilt the jelly dish and force the water (information) to flow into new channels and make new connections.  These new connections give you different ways to focus you attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on. These different ways of focusing your attention and different ways of interpreting what you are focusing on lead to new insights, original ideas and solutions.

You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. To illustrate, following are two rows of parallel dots which are equal in length. Try to will yourself to see the rows of dots as unequal in length. No matter how hard you concentrate and how long you look at the dots, the two rows remain equal.


However, if you change the way you look at the dots by combining the dots with two convergent straight lines, your perception of the dots changes. When you do that, the top row appears longer than the other one.


The rows are still equal (go ahead and measure them), yet, you are now seeing something different. Combining the dots with straight lines focused your attention in a different way and caught your brain’s processing routines by surprise. This provoked a different thinking pattern that changed your perception of the illustration and allowed you to see something that you could not otherwise see.

If one particular thinking strategy stands out for creative geniuses throughout history, it is the ability to provoke different thinking patterns by using creative thinking techniques that enable them to perceive conceptual analogical and metaphorical juxtapositions between dissimilar and unrelated subjects and information. 

Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee immersed himself in the problem of a better way to organize information on the internet. He abstracted the principle of the problem to “how do things flock and flow.” He studied how things flock and flow in different domains. Then he made the analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the internet and how birds of the same species flock and flow together.

The system he created mimics the ways birds of the same species congregate while flying. He created flocks of virtual “birds.” Each bird carries a document, which is assigned a string of numbers. Documents with a lot of similar words have number strings of the same length. A virtual bird will fly only with others of its own “species” or, in this case, documents with number strings of the same length. When a new article appears on the Internet, software scans it for words similar to those in existing articles and then files the document in an existing flock, or creates a new one.

This new web-feed tool will, whenever you go online, automatically update your browser with any new stories added to your favorite websites. It will also provide automatic updates from other websites, such as when new scientific papers are added to journals.

To get this idea, Xiaohui had to provoke a change in his thinking patterns about the internet. He did this by abstracting the principle of the problem (flocking and flowing) and immersed himself in searching in other domains for how things flock and flow. When he made the analogical connection between how birds flock and how information flocks, he was able to look at his problem with a new perspective. (Metaphorically, it was like placing two straight lines next to the dots in the illustration.)

The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.




To learn  about creative thinking techniques and how to get the ideas you need, read Michael’s books












Only 1% of people can spot the second tiger. These people have acute perceptive abilities. If you can’t find it, go to the end of this article for the answer.

Cognitive scientists understand the importance of perception and pattern recognition as a major component of creative thinking.  When you are committed and start to actively work on a problem that you are passionate about, you will start to notice more and more things that relate to what you are working on. With an infinite amount of stimuli constantly hitting our brains, we need the ability to filter that which is most relevant to us. And our mind is that filter. Often these connections can seem like coincidences, but cognitive scientists tell us it is simply that part of our brain that screens out information we are not interested in and focuses on the things that we can use. These connections give you different ways to look at information and different ways to focus on it.

George de Mestral was inspired to improve the zipper. He thought about the essence of zippers which is to fasten two separate pieces of fabric together. His question became “How do things fasten?” He became committed to the idea of inventing a better fastener and spent considerable time pondering how things fasten in other domains including nature.

One day when George was hunting birds with his Irish pointer, he traveled through some burdock thistles. The prickly seed burrs from the plants clung to his clothing and to his dog. While pulling off the burrs he noticed how they were removable yet easily reattached.

The burdock fascinated George and he imagined a fastener that mimicked a burdock. He studied the burrs under a microscope and discovered a hook system used by the burdock plant to migrate its seeds by attachment. The hooks could grab onto loops of thread or fur and migrate with the object it fastened itself to. This gave him the idea of creating a hook and loop fastener.

It was not logic that guided his thinking process but perception and pattern recognition between two totally unrelated subjects: zippers and bur docks. Logic dictates that bur docks are animate plants and zippers are inanimate man made objects that are totally unrelated and, therefore, any relationship between the two is to be excluded. It was George’s creative perception, not logic, that recognized the common factor between a burdock and a zipper that fastens, not logic.

George envisioned two fabrics that could attach in this manner with one having a surface covered with minuscule hooks and another with hoops. Most of the experts he visited did not believe hooks could be created on the surface of fabric. However, he found a weaver at a textile plant that was willing to work with him. George discovered that a multi filament yarn weaved from velvet or cotton terry cloth created a surface of hooped threads. To create hooks, George would partially cut the hoops so they would become hooks. There was a great deal of experimentation to get the right density, thread sizes and rigidity. He eventually weaved the hook-side yarn from nylon and invented Velcro.

Russian computer scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a  remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems to test one’s creative perception. The Bongard problems present two sets of relatively simple diagrams, say A and B. All the diagrams from set A have a common factor or attribute, which is lacking in all the diagrams of set B. The problem is to find, or to formulate, convincingly, the common   factor.

Below is an example of a Bongard problem. Test your perception and pattern recognition skills and try to solve the problem.   You have two classes of figures (A and B).  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that   distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.


One has to take chances that certain aspects of a given diagram matter, and others are irrelevant.  Perhaps shapes count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps orientations count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps curvature or its lack counts, but not location inside the box — or vice versa.  Perhaps numbers of objects but not their types matter — or vice versa.  Which types of features will wind up mattering and which are mere distractors.  As you try to solve the problem, you will find the essence of your mental activity is a complex interweaving of acts of abstraction and comparison, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty.  By guesswork I mean that one has to take a chance that certain aspects matter and others do not.

Logic dictates that the essence of perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate constituent objects and attaching separate labels to the now separated parts of pre-established categories, such as ovals, Xs and circles as unrelated exclusive events.  Then we’re taught to think exclusively within a closed system of hard logic.In the above patterns, if you were able to discern the distinction between the diagrams, your perception is what found the distinction, not logic.  The distinction is the ovals are all pointing to the X in the A group, and the ovals area all pointing at the circles in the B group.

The following thought experiment is an even more difficult problem, because you are no longer dealing with recognizable shapes such as ovals, Xs, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear representations.  To solve this, you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively, make abstract connections, much like Einstein thought when he thought about the similarities and   differences between the patterns of space and time, and you need to consider the overall context of the problem.


A                                                           B

Again, you have two classes of figures (A and B) in the Bongard problem.  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.





















ANSWER: The rule is the “dots” in A are on the same side of the neck.






Learn how to become a creative thinker. Review Michael Michalko’s books





You Do Not See Things As They Are; You See Them As You Are


Some scientists visited a New Guinea tribe that believed their world ended at the nearby river. After several months one of the scientists had to cross the river to leave. When the scientist was safely across he waved, but the tribesmen did not respond. They said they didn’t see him as nothing existed beyond the end of the world. Their entrenched patterns of belief about where the world ended distorted their perception of reality.

The New Guinea people disregard things which do not fit into the way they were taught to view reality and make them into something consistent with their beliefs. They see what they expect to see.


Take a look at these two tables. Which one of them do you think is longer, and which one is wider?


It might be hard to believe, but the two tables have the exact same dimensions! Measure both table surfaces with a ruler and prove it to yourself. Why, then, does the table on the left look elongated, while the table on the right appears to have a wider width? The illusion of two tables was first discovered by Roger Shepard at Stanford University.

It comes down to how we perceive the scene. Accustomed as we are to photography and Western art, we automatically interpret the scene as three-dimensional. The concept of perspective, first mastered by artists during the Renaissance, is one we encounter in our everyday lives, and our brains automatically assume that the further away an object is from us, the smaller it will be. To compensate, our brain interprets and “lengthens” lines that appear to be pointing away from us into the distance. In this scene, the interpretation made by our brain extends the length of the table on the left by making it appear longer and the shorter side of the right-hand table by making it appear wider. Our brain constructs what we perceive based on our past experiences rather than what is there.

People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.


Noble laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote about the classic teaser of the mirror. Why, Feynman wondered, does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, why are the letters of a book backward but not upside down, and why would Feynman’s double behind the mirror appear to have a mole on the wrong hand?

Imagine yourself standing before the mirror, he suggested, with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its head is up. Its west hand lies to the west. Its feet are down. Everything’s really all right.

The problem is on the axis running through the mirror. Your nose and the back of your head are reversed: if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south. The problem now is psychological. We think of our image as another person. We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so our brains imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way.

It is in this psychological turnabout the brain makes that make us believe that left and right are switched.

This is another example that shows the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer’s own assumptions and preconceptions. We cannot imagine our image squashed so we construct a reality that assumes an image of ourselves as if we walked around the pane of glass.


Read the following story. Wait a few minutes. Then write what you remember about the story. You might also want to try it with a friend. Ask a friend to read the story, wait a few moments, and then ask your friend to retell it to you from memory. Compare the stories to see the results.

THE STORY. One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war cries, and they thought: “Maybe this is a war party”. They escaped to the shore and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said: “What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people.”

 One of the young men said, “I have no arrows.” “Arrows are in the canoe,” they said.  “I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you,” he said, turning to the other, “may go with them.”

 So one of the young men went, but the other returned home. And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, “Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit.” Now he thought: “Oh, they are ghosts.” He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.

 So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: “Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick.” He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.

He was dead.

Now look away from the story. Wait a few minutes. Now write the story as you remembered it. How did your stories compare? You will amaze yourself at how different your story is from what you have read.

This story was used by British psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett, in his experiments in perception. He asked people to read the story which was unfamiliar to them and then later asked them to write what they remembered. He found that when they recalled the story, they had changed it to fit their existing knowledge, and it was this revised story which then became incorporated into their memory. He demonstrated that existing conceptual patterns of knowledge, beliefs, and theories absorb unfamiliar new experiences and re-interpret them to fit with what they know.


 Michael Michalko is a creativity expert and author of several books on creative thinking. Discover how to get the ideas you need by visiting


horses or woman

  It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, only a few patterns dominate your thinking. These patterns produce predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and combine your subject with something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. 

Try an experiment. Pick eight random words (or use the following 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’ll discover that people will come up with some very creative classifications. They’ll group them according to “words with the letter,” “things that touch water,” “objects made in factories,” and so on. No one ever says there is no connection, they invent them. 

Though we seldom think about it, making random connections in such a manner are conceptual creative acts. Making random connections were popular techniques used by Jackson Pollock and other Surrealist artists to create conceptual combinations in 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. 


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 a card.
  • Collect the cards have the group combine the words into a sentence (words can be added by the group to help the sentence make sense).
  • Then invite the group to study the final sentence and build an idea or ideas from it. 

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. 

This triggered their idea which was the sensation of the auction. They sold an idea for an artwork that doesn’t exist. They talked a well-known conceptual artist into describing an idea for an artwork. The idea was placed in an envelope and auctioned off for $5,000. 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 black and red pencils. The artist and the owner will have one meeting where the artist will describe his vision for the painting with the owner. The owner has the right to reproduce this piece as many times as he likes.





First, please take a few moments to complete the following experiment before you read this article. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, please trace the capital letter “Q” on your forehead. There are only two ways of doing this experiment. You can trace the letter “Q” on your forehead with the tail of Q toward your right eye or you draw it with the tail toward your left eye. Some people draw the letter 0 in such a way that they themselves can read it; that is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of the forehead. Others draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the 0 on the left side of the forehead.


What an odd thing to ask someone to do. This is an exercise that was popularized by University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman who concentrates on discovering big truths in small things. For instance, Wiseman explains that the Q test is a quick measure of “self-monitoring” which is a theory that deals with the phenomena of expressive controls. Human beings generally differ in substantial ways in their abilities and desires to engage in expressive controls.

Fixed mindset. People who draw the letter Q with the tail slanting toward their left so that someone facing them can read it tend to focus outwardly. Wiseman describes them as high self monitors. Their primary concern is “looking good” and “looking smart.” They are concerned with how other people see them, are highly responsive to social cues and their situational context. Psychologist Carol Dweck describes such people as having a “fixed” mindset. Some of the characteristics of people with a fixed mindset are:


  • They have a fixed mindset about their abilities and the abilities of others. E.g., all talent is innate and static. You are either born intelligent or you are not. They do not believe people can change and grow.
  • They enjoy being the center of attention and adapt their actions to suit the situation. Ability is something inherent that needs to be demonstrated.
  • They are also skilled at manipulating the way others see them, which makes them good at deception and lying.
  • They offer external attributions for failures. They are never personally responsible for mistakes or failures. To them, admitting you failed is tantamount to admitting you’re worthless.
  • They are performance oriented and will only perform tasks that they are good at. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor.
  • From a fixed mindset perspective, if you have to work hard at something, or you learn it slowly, you aren’t good at it, and are not very smart. Performance is paramount. They want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process.

Growth mindset. People who draw the letter Q with the tail slanting toward the right so they can read it tend to focus inwardly. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the “same person” in different situations. Their behavior is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.” Carol Dweck would describe such people as having a “growth” mindset.


Among the characteristics of people with a growth mindset are:

  • They tend to exhibit expressive controls congruent with their own internal states; i.e. beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions regardless of social circumstance.
  • They are often less observant of social context and consider expressing a self-presentation dissimilar from their internal states as a falsehood and undesirable.
  • They are generally oblivious to how others see them and hence march to their own different drum.
  • They believe the brain is dynamic and develops over time by taking advantage of learning opportunities and overcoming adversity.
  • They offer internal attributions to explain things by assigning causality to factors within the person. An internal explanation claims that the person was directly responsible for the event.
  • They take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn.
  • The growth mindset is associated with greater confidence, risk-taking, and higher academic and career success over time. Ability can be developed.
  • High achievement comes from hard work, dedication and persistence to meet a goal.

“If you want to demonstrate something over and over, it feels like something static that lives inside of you—whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Carol Dweck explains. People with fixed mindsets think intelligence is fixed from birth. People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed.

In one notable experiment, Dweck gave a class of preadolescent students a test filled with challenging problems. After they were finished, one group was praised for its effort and another group was praised for its intelligence. Those praised for their intelligence were reluctant to tackle difficult tasks, and their performance on subsequent tests soon began to suffer.

Then Dweck asked the children to write a letter to students at another school, describing their experience in the study. She discovered something remarkable: 40 percent of those students who were praised for their intelligence lied about how they had scored on the test, adjusting their grade upward. They weren’t naturally deceptive people, and they weren’t any less intelligent or self-confident than anyone else. They simply did what people do when they are immersed in an environment that celebrates them solely for their innate “talent.” They begin to define themselves by that description, and when times get tough and that self-image is threatened, they have difficulty with the consequences. Politicians and businesspeople with fixed mindsets will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie then confess up to problems and work to fix them.

Michelangelo’s mindset. A great example of a growth mindset is the mindset of Michelangelo. When Michelangelo turned 13-years old, he enraged his father when he told that he had agreed to apprentice in the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. His father believed artists were menial laborers beneath their social class. Michelangelo defied his father and learned art and then went on to study at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens. During the years he spent in the Garden of San Marco, Michelangelo became interested in human anatomy. At the time, studying corpses was strictly forbidden by the church. You were threatened with damnation and excommunication. He overcame this problem by making a wooden Crucifix with a detail of Christ’s face and offered it as a bribe to Niccolò Bichiellini, the prior of the church of Santo Spirito, in exchange for permission to secretly study corpses.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, revealed his ability to do what others could not: if other artists required special marble and ideal conditions, he could create a masterpiece from whatever was available, including marble already hopelessly mangled by others. Back in 1463, the authorities of the cathedral of Florence acquired a sixteen-foot-high chunk of white marble to be carved into a sculpture. Two well-known sculptors worked on the piece and gave up, and the mangled block was put in storage. They did not want to admit to failure. Forty years later, Michelangelo took what was left of the marble and sculpted David, the world’s most famous sculpture, within eighteen months.

Michelangelo’s competitors persuaded Junius II to assign to him a relatively obscure and difficult project. It was to fresco the ceiling of a private chapel. The chapel had already been copiously decorated with frescoes by many talented artists. Michelangelo would be commissioned to decorate the tunnel-vaulted ceiling. In this way, his rivals thought they would divert his energies from sculpture, in which they realized he was supreme. This, they argued, would make things hopeless for him, since he had no experience of coloring in fresco he would certainly, they believed, do less creditable work as a painter. Without doubt, they thought, he would be compared unfavorably with Raphael, and even if he refused to do it, he’d make the Pope angry and suffer the consequences. Thus, one way or another, they would succeed in their purpose of getting rid of him.

In every way it was a challenging task. He had rarely used color, nor had he painted in fresco. He worked hard and long at studying and experimenting with colors and in fresco. When ready, he executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards, and this lasted for several months. In that awkward curved space, Michelangelo managed to depict the history of the Earth from the Creation to Noah, surrounded by ancestors and prophets of Jesus and finally revealing the liberation of the soul. His enemies had stage managed the masterpiece that quickly established him as the artist genius of the age.

Michelangelo is a wonderful example of a person with a growth mindset. He ignored his father and marched to his own drum to become an artist; overcame the church’s adversity to studying corpses, took the risk of sculpting mangled marble into the world’s finest sculpture; and with hard work, dedication and persistence, painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
To learn more about the creative thinking habits of Michelangelo and other creative geniuses read Michael Michalko’s Cracking Creativity (Secrets of Creative Genius).