Think Create Idea

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Last time we explored three of the six recognised and widely researched techniques that lead to an increase in creativity. In this post we explore the remaining three:

4. Combining concepts
5. Abstract thinking
6. Allowing your mind to wander

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4. Combining Concepts

Combining concepts is all about combining those concepts that seem to be in contradiction with each other. The psychologist Rothenberg is attributed with this technique and it’s often called the Janus technique. Janus was the mythical figure that has two faces that faced in the opposite direction from each other.

Perhaps, in some respects, this bears a resemblance to Doublethink that I have written several posts on before. Suffice to say here: Doublethink involves holding two apparently contradictory thoughts simultaneously and is a remarkably successful technique for overcoming stumbling blocks and remaining motivated.

In regard to combining concepts it’s a technique that allows us to make connections between apparently contradictory scenarios. When we make new connections we literally form new connections in the mind. This in itself is useful. When those new connections link apparently unrelated concepts through analogy the new connections in the mind can lead to a significant boost in creativity.

This technique has been widely used and has certainly stood ‘the test of time’. Aficionados of combining concepts through analogy include Einstein. He used this technique when attempting to formulate his thinking on gravitational force. How? He imagined a person falling with a rock from a sufficiently high height that both the person and the rock fell at the same rate of acceleration. Galileo had also imagined this earlier in history by two dropping stones of different mass from The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Rest assured though: in Einstein’s experiment no humans were actually harmed! But in Galileo’s experiment the two stones required Italian apothecary care of the highest order! [Ehem…]

As for the science, we know that both the stones, irrespective of their mass, and the human and the stone fall at the same rate. (It’s all to do with their surface area and the upthrust applied.) Interestingly therefore, the two objects seem to each other to be stationary even though they are both falling. You’ve had that experience when you are in a car or train and next you is a car or train accelerating at the same rate. If you ignore the world passing you by around you it looks like the car or train next you is stationary.) In Einstein’s Dream Experiment, since that’s what Einstein called them, he could use this analogy relativity condition to formulate his creative thinking on gravitational force. Find yourself dreaming? Good! Just apply your dream to what you’re meant to be solving and see what happens! More on this in point 6.

What psychologists have found out is that Analogical Thinking (using analogy to draw conclusions) is one of the best ways to boost creativity. How can you apply this thinking?:
  • Focus on the gist of the problem and not the specifics, at least to begin with
  • Change specific words to general words. So, rather than referring to something specifically e.g. what it actually is refer to it as what it belongs to. Acrylic (specific) is paint (general). So, if stuck with your art project, rather than ask, ‘How might I use acrylic here?’ ask, ‘How might someone use paint in general?’ The removal of the specific allows a more abstract view and previously constrained opportunities are now possible. Scientists and engineers have used this technique on countless occasions. Exploring how someone else did something can lead to all sorts of revelatory discoveries and possible applications for you, as Gassman and Zeschky discovered in a series of engineering problems to overcome. (See ‘How to be Creative‘ by Jeremy Dean.)
  • Finally, zoom out! By this I mean not get ‘bogged down’ in the details, at least to begin with, focus on the overview. The often used analogy here is with stepping-stones. When you are in the midst of the stones, stepping from one to another your means of stepping from the one you’re on to the next might seem very difficult. However, when you ‘zoom out’ the stepping-stones suddenly appear much closer: may be even touching! Incredibly, the apparent connections that now exist allow you to make new connections yourself. How can you do this? Reduce the problem at hand to its most general. Take away all the specifics. Now, how can I solve this drawing on parallel examples? It does work!

Here’s another apparently contradictory-to-logic example to discuss. Stuck on a problem? Go and solve another problem at the same time! Lowenstein and Kurtz, in 2007 published an article called Converging on a new role for analogy in problem solving and retrieval: when two problems are better than one. Memory and cognition. They discovered the extraordinary fact that when no solution is in sight in one problem solving another problem helps bring new insight to the previously insolvable problem; in some cases actually leading to it being solved! Somehow it enables us to fuel ideas and solutions that we hadn’t thought about or understood into the unsolved problem.

There are other techniques that work too.

When facing a problem:

a – Explain it to someone else
b – Explain it to yourself
c – Imagine explaining it to someone else or yourself!
d – Imagine someone else explaining it to you or someone else and you’re listening in

All these techniques remarkably bring understanding and with it the opportunities to boost creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time – and words – explaining combining concepts so I’ll explain the remaining two techniques to boost creativity in many fewer words.

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5. Abstract thinking

Which might prove more useful? The abstract or the specific? It might come as no surprise after the previous section that the abstract is often more useful. But not always. It depends upon what you’re wanting to achieve. Psychologist Jens Förster (2009) explored this with the abstract concept of love and the specific concept of sex. (We won’t explain her research!, but you can read all about it here.) Suffice to say, abstract (lose the details) thinking is excellent for creativity, as we previously explored. However, for analysis, specific thinking (all the detail) is more beneficial.

Time is an interesting concept and we can experience time in very different ways. Time can seem to ‘fly by’ or ‘drag’; yet, that’s not possible scientifically. Time explored in abstract as well as in detail can benefit creativity. How so? We tend to experience distant events in the abstract; whereas, tomorrow’s events are in detail. Ask someone about their planned holiday in 2012 and I doubt it details where they’ll be going on the Tuesday at 11 am (I hope not anyway!) but ask someone who’s going on holiday tomorrow they will be able to give you a detailed itinerary (I hope so here too!).
We can use the different ways we experience time to our advantage too. Imagine doing the task you’re about to do, as if you were doing it in a year’s time. The ‘zooming out’ technique boosts creativity (as researched by Jia, L; Hirt, E. R. & Karpen, S. C. In 2009: Lessons from a Far Away Land: The Effects of Spacial distance on creative cognition.)

By association, imagine doing a task in a year’s time tomorrow. Now detail is the ‘rule of thumb’ and you can become much more aware of possible pitfalls.

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6. A wandering Mind

A wandering mind helps creativity! You can read about it here. This might bring a look of despair on the faces of teachers, as they think about all their pupils who regularly gaze out of the window and a look of euphoria on the faces of those that do. What’s the thinking behind this? It apparently allows the counter-factual ‘What if…?’ question to run around unguarded leading to all sorts of discoveries and inventions. How often have we heard teachers remark that pupils – or pupils themselves remark for that matter – that they didn’t listen in class: that they were bored and couldn’t concentrate?

I was in an excellent Primary School in Redbridge earlier this year and while waiting to present a session on coaching read the children’s displays on various giants of the science world. Time and time again I read of these minds, as children, failed to concentrate in class and were lambasted and in some cases excluded as a result. And yet, these apparently insubordinate pupils made some of the most influential scientific discoveries. It’s not that daydreaming is an excuse to say that you’re mind’s working on quantum theory but then again…

So, how can you use this technique to boost creativity?:

Think like a seven-year old before undertaking a task. Unless you’re actually seven in which case think like another age. This frees us of constraints, broadens the picture and permits ‘What Ifs’ that you probably wouldn’t have asked.

What can the successful business entrepreneurs teach us about a wandering mind, I wonder? (I was determined to write that!)

It’s actually a case of knowing when to wander and when to focus. Creativity comes from wandering; sustainability comes from focus. We need both a wandering (exploring ideas and possibilities) and a focused (concentrated, exclusive) mind. It’s knowing when to do which that matters and the ability to switch between the two states that matters. Successful entrepreneurs have masted this technique. And it goes further: the more creative a person the greater their ability to switch between abstract and specific.

To further explore these concepts and the previous three I highly recommend Jeremy Dean’s book ‘How to be Creative‘ where these six techniques have been taken from and further explored by me. Creativity, while being an elusive concept demonstrated by geniuses throughout history, is in reach of all of us through applying these techniques. No, we probably won’t be another Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Maria Callas, Garfield Sobers, Estée Lauder or Gary Kasparov but who knows where our new levels of creativity will lead us…