If one particular thinking strategy stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see relationships to which others are blind. They set their imagination in motion by using unrelated stimuli and forcing connections with their subject.

In the illustration, Figure B appears larger than Figure A. It is not. They are both the same size. If you cut out Figure A, you will find that fits exactly over Figure B.


Juxtaposing the smaller arc of A to the larger arc of B makes the upper figure seem smaller. The juxtaposition of the arcs creates a connection between the arcs that changes our perception about their size. We perceive the arcs in terms of thought patterns that are triggered by what is in front of us. We do not see the arcs (equal in size) as they are but as we perceive them (unequal).

In a similar  way, you can change your  thinking patterns  by connecting your  subject with something that is not related. These different patterns catch your brains processing by surprise and will change your perception of your subject. Suppose you want a new way to display expiration dates on packages of perishable food and you randomly pair this with autumn. Leaves change color in the autumn. Forcing a connection between changing colors with expiration dates  triggers  the  idea  of  smart  labels  that  change  color  when  the  food  is  exposed  to unrefrigerated temperatures for too long. The label would signal the consumer even though a calendar expiration date might be months away. Our notion of expiration dates was changed by making a connection with something that was unrelated (autumn) which triggered a new thought pattern which led to a new idea.

In order to get original ideas, you need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. You need one pattern reacting with another set of patterns to create a new pattern. Recently, an engineer needed to place a large generator into an excavated area. The usual way to do this was with a heavy crane, which costs $8,000 to lease. Randomly leafing through a National Geographic magazine, he read about Eskimos and the construction of igloos. He connected igloos made of ice with his problem and came up with an ingenious solution. He trucked in blocks of ice and placed the ice in the excavated area. Next, he pushed the generator onto the ice and placed the generator over the location for it. When the ice melted, the generator settled perfectly into the location.

I first learned of this “connecting the unconnected” thinking process from Leonardo Da Vinci who wrote how he connected the unconnected to get his creative inspiration in his notebooks. He  wrote  about  this  strategy  in  a  mirror-image  reversed  script secret handwriting  which  he taught himself. To read his handwriting, you have to use a mirror. It was his way of protecting his thinking strategy from prying eyes. He suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or the shape of clouds or patterns in mud or in similar places. He would imagine seeing trees, battles, landscapes, figures with lively movements, etc., and then excite his mind by forcing connections between the subjects and events he imagined and his subject.

Da Vinci would even sometimes throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the stains. Once while thinking of new ways to transport people, he threw a paint-filled sponge against the wall which produced a scattering of irregular shapes. Trying to make sense out of the meaningless shapes, he imagined one  group of shapes to resemble a rider on a horse. He perceived the bottom half of the horse’s feet as resembling two wheels. Thinking of a horse on wheels, then of a structure that resembles a horse on wheels he realized people could be transported on two wheels and a frame that resembles a horse. Hence, the bicycle which he invented.

The metaphors that Leonardo formed by forcing connections between two totally unrelated subjects moved his imagination with a vengeance. Once he was standing by a well and noticed a stone hit the water at the same moment that a bell went off in a nearby church tower. He noticed the stone caused circles until they spread and disappeared. By simultaneously concentrating on the circles in the water and the sound of the bell, he made the connection that led to his discovery that  sound  travels  in waves.  This  kind  of  tremendous  insight  could  only  happen  through  a connection between sight and sound made by the imagination.

Da Vinci’s knack to make remote connections was certainly at the basis of Leonardo’s genius to form analogies between totally different systems. He associated the movement of water with the movement of human hair, thus becoming the first person to illustrate in extraordinary detail the many invisible subtleties of water in motion. His observations led to the discovery of a fact of nature which came to be called the Law of Continuity.

Da Vinci discovered that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. This is what happened to NASA engineer James Crocker when the Hubble telescope failed and embarrassed NASA. In the shower of a German hotel room, NASA engineer James Crocker was contemplating the Hubble disaster while showering and absentmindedly looking at the adjustable shower head that could be extended and adjusted in various ways for personal comfort and cleanliness  to  the  user’s  height.  He  made  the  connection  between  the  shower  head  and  the Hubble problem and invented the idea of placing corrective mirrors on automated adjustable arms that could reach inside the telescope and adjust to the correct position. His idea turned the Hubble from a disaster into a NASA triumph.

It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only 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 think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made. This connection will lead to the discovery of an original idea or thought. This is what some people mistakenly call divine inspiration or “out of the blue.”

DuPont  developed  and  manufactured  Nomex,  a  fire-resistant  fiber.  It’s  tight  structure  made  it impervious to dye. Potential customers (it could be used in the interior of airplanes) would not buy the material unless DuPont could manufacture a colored version. A DuPont chemist read an article about gold mining an how the mines were constructed. This inspired the chemist to compare Nomex to a mine shaft in a gold mine a subject that had nothing to do with Nomex. What  is  the  connection  between  a tight  structure and  a mine  shaft? To  excavate  minerals, miners dig a hole into the earth and use props to keep the hole from collapsing. Expanding on this thought, the chemist figured out a way to chemically prop open holes in Nomex as it is being manufactured so it could later be filled with dyes.

In nature, a gene pool that is totally lacking in variation would be totally unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In time, the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness, with consequences that would be fatal to the species survival.   A comparable process operates within us as individuals. We all have a rich repertoire of ideas and concepts that enable us to survive and prosper. But without any provision for the variation of ideas, our usual ideas become stagnate and lose their advantages. For this variation to be truly effective it must be blind.

When we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. We have not been taught how to process information by connecting remotely-associated subjects through trial and error. This is true for inventors, artists, writers, scientists, designers, businesspeople, or everyday people fantasizing about a better life. DaVinci’s thinking process provides a means of producing blind variation of ideas through the use of unrelated stimuli, such as random words, random objects, pictures, magazines and newspapers to produce a rich variety of unpredictable ideas.


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