The brain, similarly to musical instruments, has great emergent properties. There used to be strings that one could not play in the old strings instruments, called “sympathetic chords.” These strings were not played but were made to vibrate by the vibrations of the other strings. These chords created musical sounds far beyond what could be played with surface strings. The sounds seem to be created out of nothing. I suggest that there are an enormous number of “sympathetic” chords in our brains that much like the sympathetic chords in string instruments increase the capacity of the brain and our ability to make indirect complex associations. 

We have the capacity to imagine new things, of pieces of things, or of properties of the external world, of essences, of remote thoughts and things that allows us through indirect associations (these are our sympathetic chords) to conceptually blend together two dissimilar subjects into new ideas or inventions. Humans began by blending “animal bones” and “killing animals” into weapons made of bone and by using the same process we got the light bulb, television, and space satellites.

This way of thinking is so raw and natural that we don’t even notice how fantastic this ability is. A good example, of conceptual blending, is the ordinary metaphor. If you look at a phrase like, ‘They are digging their financial grave,’ you know immediately what is meant. Yet there is no connection whatsoever between digging a grave and investing money. There is no logical way to connect graves and money. How is it possible to know what this means?

Your mind takes one input “grave digging” and another input of “financial investment” and blends them together without effort. But the meaning isn’t contained in either input; it’s actually constructed in the blend. The blend develops a structure not provided by the inputs that creates an “emergent” new meaning. Almost invisibly, our mind randomly merges two dissimilar subjects and choreographs vast networks of indirect associations which when blended yields thoughts and ideas, which, at the conscious level, appear simple.

Raw creativity means to respond to the essence of things. We make the connection between “grave digging” and “financial investment,” because we unconsciously are responding to the essence of the metaphor which is “losing,” “losing life,” and “losing money.” Take the example of the scientist who was assigned the task of developing glues that can be used in medicine and surgery. The essence of his task is “adhering.” He looked for ways things adhere to objects. One day while repairing the dock for his boat, he observed how strongly mussels adhered to his pier. He discovered that the mussel excretes a substance that lets them anchor themselves firmly to any object and remain there while being buffeted by the ocean’s waves. Today, the scientist is mimicking the cellular make up of the substance and developing a mussel-inspired glue that one day will be used to repair shattered bones.


Many of us have lost the raw sensitivity to essences because we have become educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. For example, suppose we were asked to design a new can opener. Most of our ideas would be driven by our experience and association with the particulars of existing can openers, and we would likely design something that is only marginally different from existing can openers.

If, however, we determined the essence of a can opener to be opening things, and looked for cues in the world around us on how things open we increase our chances of discovering a novel idea. Think for a moment how things open. Some examples are:

  • Valves open by steam.
  • Oysters open by relaxing a muscle.
  • Pea pods open when ripening weakens the seam.
  • Open doors with keys.
  • Open a fish’s mouth by squeezing the base.
  • Open a car’s accelerator by pushing a pedal.

Now our raw creativity allows us to make thousands of indirect associations, some of which may lead to an original, novel idea. For example, you can take the pea pod and work it into a new idea. The idea is that instead of a can opener, design the can with a weak seam which when pulled opens the can. This kind of novel idea is the kind of idea you cannot thinking the way you’ve taught to think.

Creative people in the arts, sciences, and industry use this thinking strategy. Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express, said people in the transportation of goods business never really understood why and how he became so successful. He became successful he said because he understood the “essence” of the business which is “peace of mind,” and not the transportation of goods. This is why he was the first to make it possible for customers to track packages right from their desktops.

Martin Skalski, director of the transportation design sequence at Pratt Institute. Skalski, for example, doesn’t tell students to design an automobile or study various automobile designs on the market. Instead he begins the design process by having them create abstract compositions of thinks in motion. Then by progressively making the process less abstract, he eventually has them working on the real problem tying in the connections between the abstract work and the final model.

Arthur Erickson, world renowned architect and designer, also uses the thinking strategy with his students to help them avoid visual and functional preconceptions and unlock creativity. For example, if he is looking for a new chair design, he will first ask his students to draw a picture of a figure in motion. Then he will ask them to build a model (wood, plastic, metal, paper) of a structure that supports that figure in motion. Finally, he will have them use the model as a stimulus for a new chair design.

Erickson points out to his students the importance of finding the essence of designing furniture. As he puts it: “If I had said to the students, “Look, we’re going to design a chair or bed, they would have explored the design on the basis of previous memories of chairs or beds. But by approaching the model from the essential direction, I was able to make them realize the vital essence of furniture.

In one group exercise Erickson had his assistants generate a list of how to store things, a list of how to stack things, and a list of how to organize large objects. Then he gave his assistants the real problem which was to design a parking garage using as stimuli the ideas and thoughts from the three different lists.

The mind makes ruts very quickly and even more so when it stalls and spins its wheels. You get mired in the details of some perception. Charles Darwin asked the grand question “What is life?” instead of getting mired down classifying the mite or fungus. Getting right to the essence of the problem creates space between thoughts sunken into each other. It forces you to test assumptions and explore possibilities.

 Or, consider the bookstore owner who viewed himself as a seller of books, a very specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a “provider of information and entertainment,” a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening, and would have opened up new opportunities.


First, describe the problem and determine its essence? Ask “What is the principle of the problem?” Gillette scientists wanted to create a new toothbrush.

Decide the major principle. What is the essence?

            ▪ Essence: Cleaning things.

Generate a list of things that represent the major principle:

            *How are cars cleaned. 

            * How is hair cleaned.

            * How are fish cleaned.

            * How are ears cleaned.

            * How are clothes cleaned.

            * How is polluted air cleaned.

Select one and describe:

  • Car is washed in a car wash with multiple soaping and multiple brushing action in different directions.           

Final idea: The final product was a toothbrush with multiple pasting and brushing actions much like a car wash. They called it Oral-B. This invention helped the company become the global leader in the oral care market.

And finally at one time Automobile windshields must be constantly cleared when there is any weather at all (rain, sleet, snow, ice, frost, dirt, etc.). A group of engineers brainstormed for ways to improve the windshield. The wish they decided to work with was: What if a windshield could clean itself?

The group listed all objects and thing that self-clean. One of the listed objects was camera lenses which seem to be self-cleaning. One of the engineers investigated and discovered that the lenses are coated with titanium dioxide. When the sun’s rays hit the coating, they set off a chemical reaction that strips the lens of organic matter. The engineers decided to see if they could adopt this process to the automobile windshield, which they did by modifying the way glass is coated. This process keeps the windshields clean of everything but large bird droppings.


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