Archimedes got his sudden insight about the principle of displacement that became a law of physics while daydreaming in his bath. According to legend, he was so excited by his discovery that he rushed naked through the streets shouting, “Eureka!” (I’ve found it.) Henri Poincare, the French genius, spoke of incredible ideas and insights that came to him with suddenness and immediate certainty out of the blue. Charles Darwin could point to the exact spot on a road where he arrived at the solution for the origin of species while riding in his carriage and not thinking about his subject. Other geniuses offer similar experiences. Like a sudden flash of lightning, ideas and solutions seemingly appear out of nowhere.
A well-known physicist once said that all great discoveries in science were made by scientists who were not thinking about a specific problem. Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, deduced how the nuclei of atoms stay together, one of those rare “knowing the mind of God” discoveries. His breakthrough occurred when he was reviewing a totally different problem — in fact, a different force of nature. He suddenly experienced an “Aha” and realized that a failed approach in one area would be successful in another.
Similarly, Bertrand Russell wrote in The Conquest of Happiness: “I have found, for example, that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity — the greatest intensity of which I am capable — for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.”
This is a commonplace phenomenon with creative thinkers in art, science, liberal arts and business. A majority of creative thinkers reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary. For, in other words, how can ideas be created from nothing?
Where Divine Inspiration Comes From?
The Rockefeller University physicist Heinz Pagels in his book “The Cosmic Code,” wrote that quantum physics is a kind of code that interconnects everything in the universe. There are, for example, remarkable similarities between the mysteries of how our creative mind works and what quantum physicists have observed in their studies of the universe. Thoughts in our subconscious minds behave remarkably like subatomic particles in quantum physics which simultaneously exist and don’t exist until observed and eventually collapse into what physicists call “a collapse of the wave function.” This may be the same mental process that creates the “Aha” experience or divine inspiration that creative thinkers report.
One of the discoveries of quantum mechanics is that something can simultaneously exist and not exist; if a particle is capable of moving along several different paths, or existing in several different states, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics allows it to travel along all paths and exist in all possible states simultaneously. However, if the particle happens to be measured by some means, its path or state is no longer uncertain. The simple act of measurement instantly forces it into just one path or state. It is as if the physical world wants to explore many alternative pathways before collapsing into a settled state by the interaction of an observer.
Physicists call this a ”collapse of the wave function.” An example in physics is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that demonstrated that light can be seen as a wave or as a particle depending upon the interaction of the observer. Renowned physicist David Bohm suggested parallels between this activity of quantum physics with subatomic particles and how the creative mind processes thought.
The Mind is Like the Universe
The mind is like the universe. You have billions of bits of thoughts, observations, and information floating around in your conscious and subconscious mind, totally unobserved, with each bit presenting a multitude of possibilities which evolve and change over time. These thoughts are in multiple states such as words, phrases, metaphors, images, feelings, dreams, symbols, abstractions, voices, and so on. Particles of thought pop up out of nothingness and become entangled with other thoughts influencing each other instantaneously.
Just as subatomic particles do not exist unless observed, your subconscious thoughts do not exist until observed. In other words, there is no thought independent of you, the observer. When you are brainstorming for ideas and have a thought, the value of that thought depends upon how you interact with it. If you are an analytical thinker and automatically classify thoughts as irrelevant or unrelated, you are crippling your potential for creative ideas and solutions.
We are educated to be critical, judgmental, logical thinkers and to instantly evaluate and judge thoughts based on our past experiences. If there is any ambiguity, the judgment is invariably negative and the thought dissipates back into nothingness. The ordinary mind has no tolerance for ambiguity because it is conditioned to simplify the complexities of life. We are taught to be exclusionary thinkers, which means we exclude anything that is not immediately related to our
subject. If there is any ambiguity, the average person will invariably censor it and the thought dissipates back into nothingness. This exclusionary way of thinking is how we lost our natural capacity to spontaneously generate ideas.
This is why the average person produces only a handful of ideas when brainstorming; whereas, a creative genius will produce great quantities of ideas. Thomas Edison, for example, created 3000 different ideas for a lighting system before he stepped back to evaluate them for practicality and profitability. All geniuses produce great quantities of ideas because they uncritically search for all possible alternatives. If you ask the average person to find a needle in a haystack, he or she will stop when they find a needle. Creative thinkers, on the other hand, will go through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.
You give value to your thoughts when you interact with them and accept them uncritically. Once observed and accepted, thoughts become loose and move freely around in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you set in random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject, your thoughts keep colliding, combining, recombining and making associations. Eventually bits of thoughts and information will become entangled and create a novel idea which will bubble up into your consciousness when you least expect it.
Charles Darwin’s richness of imagination was equaled only by his willingness to consider what others did not consider worthwhile. His colleagues would compare new ideas and theories with their existing patterns of experience. If the ideas didn’t fit, they would reject them out of hand. Conversely, Darwin would consider all ideas and theories to see where they led. Darwin’s colleagues called him a fool and his work the experiments of a fool. His willingness not to judge what others called fools experiments filled his subconscious mind with billions of colliding thoughts that eventually led to his epiphany about biological evolution.
The Key to Creative Thinking
The key to productive creative thinking is to harvest the quantum wave-like proliferations of thoughts which abound in our subconscious mind. We make these real by observing and accepting them without judgment of any kind. After a conscious preparation to produce new ideas, list every thought, particles of thoughts, hunch, and, in short, everything that comes to mind without categorizing, evaluating or judging.
My favorite technique to generate ideas is to give myself an idea quota. A quota will focus your energy in a way that guarantees fluency of thought. Suppose I ask you to list alternative uses for the common brick as fast as you can. No doubt, you would come up with some cases, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six.
However, if I asked you to come up with sixty uses for the common brick as fast as you can, this forces you to come up with 60 ideas. By forcing yourself to meet a quota, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. To meet your quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectile in riots, ballast, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop, device to hold down newspapers, a portable step to carry with you so you can stand on it in crowds, stone crab cracker and so on) as you stretch your imagination to meet your quota. A quota allows you to generate more imaginative alternatives than you otherwise would.
Two designers wanted to create a new unique pillow and decided to have a free-wheeling brainstorming session with a quota of 120 ideas. They listed every idea that popped into their minds. Pillows made of grass, pillows with different scents, pillows which played lullabies, pillows that recorded night sounds such as snoring and talking, pillows that move gently like rolling waves, pillows that woke you by being timed to wake you with a dim glow that grows brighter and brighter as more time goes by—like waking up to the rising sun, pillows with text devices so you say “good night” to your loved one miles away, and so on. After they reached 120 ideas, they walked away from the problem.
Three days later they met and agreed to produce a novel pillow. They decided to have electroluminescent wire woven into the textile pattern of two pillows. When you touch or hug one the other starts glowing correspondingly — even if it is located somewhere else in the world. The two pillows are connected wirelessly via a communication platform on the Internet and thus you can experience a sense of closeness over long distances.
The designers produced a number of uncensored ideas to meet their quota, recorded them and then left the thoughts to incubate in their subconscious minds. The thoughts collided, combined, and recombined in a million different ways until the most likely combination of pillows glowing by touch via the internet surfaced as the idea they decided to pursue.
In each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait. Once you chose one you marginalize the others. To say it very simply, the moment we call something “a” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (b, c, d, e, etc) into nothingness because we don’t see them. By not marginalizing any of their ideas from brainstorming, the pillow designers multiplied their possibilities. Instead of just “a,” to work with, they had a, b, c, d, e, f, and so on and ended up combining three or four of their possibilities into a new, novel and creative idea.
If you spend your time and energy looking for reasons why things can’t work or can’t be done, you end up with nothing. You can’t create something out of nothing. You need to persistently work on your challenge and uncritically feed quantities of thoughts, ideas, opinions and observations into your subconscious mind so it has something it can actively create into the new and novel ideas you need for your pers
onal and business lives.
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. See more here.