Even during times of crisis and major uncertainty, creativity is very useful. The outbreak gripping the world at present, the Corona Virus (covid-19), is causing all sorts of interruption globally. The pandemic is causing us to think like we’ve never thought before or at least in a very long time.
Creativity brings itself to the forefront once again. How we use it to solve some almost unthinkable problems is up to us. Fortunately, we have viable resources upon which to fall back.
In the continuing process of exploring the myriad aspects of creativity, I was intrigued by this article from the Trillo blog regarding how Albert Einstein used a certain kind of “play” to enhance his creative streaks. What’s appealing to me is that all of us can learn from this, whether or not we’re engaged in a global pandemic.
I dare say everyone wants to boost their creativity. Now especially. How about boosting it on a par with the likes of Einstein? Well, it has to do with what’s referred to as Combinatory Play.
What the heck is Combinatory Play?
“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”
– Albert Einstein
The term “combinatory play,” also known as combinatorial creativity, was perhaps first coined by Albert Einstein in a letter to French mathematician Jacques Hadamard. In an attempt to understand mathematicians’ mental processes, Hadamard asked Einstein about how he thought.
Einstein’s letter reply, later published in Ideas and Opinions, explained that his thinking process transcended what could be communicated in the written or spoken word, but that there was “a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts.”
Well, Einstein was known to play violin whenever he was stuck on a tough problem and often spoke of how music influenced the way he thought about math and science. His sister, Maja, said that sometimes after playing piano, he’d get up and say, “There, now I’ve got it.”
Call it combinatory play, combinatorial creativity, or intuition—we’ve all experienced that flash of insight, that fleeting moment when a solution we’ve been grinding away at reveals itself in an unexpected place. Playing violin helped Einstein theorize about time and space. What might be your Combinatory Play?
“Creativity is just connecting things.” – Steve Jobs
Stuck in Traffic on the Neural Pathway to Nowhere
Understanding why Combinatory Play boosts creativity, means we should look at how the brain works.
The brain’s building blocks are neurons: nerve cells that receive and transmit signals along neural pathways. In Harvard professor of psychiatry John Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the Brain, certain pathways are forged at birth, like the ones that control your breathing and heartbeat. Others can be manipulated by learning. So when you’re stuck in a rut, your brain’s neurons could literally be stuck on a neural pathway you’ve carved out through your behavior.
The good news is you can get your brain unstuck by choosing to make new connections—forge a new neural pathway. Ratey explains, “A person who forcibly changes his behavior can break the deadlock by requiring neurons to change connections to enact the new behavior.”
If you’re frustrated by mental processes that lead nowhere, it’s kind of like your brain is taking the same old route to work every day because that’s what you’ve trained it to do. But if the highway is congested and you’re sitting in traffic, it’s up to you to tell your brain that there’s a new route it should take to get to where you want to go.
Comfort In Familiarity
Your brain is continually striving for order and predictability, and as a result, can get pretty set in its ways. While reverting to familiar paths can keep you safe and comfortable, it can also hinder your creativity. Therefore, it’s important to quiet this part of the brain if you want to invent new solutions. Combinatory Play can help you do this by relaxing your mind.
The Brain’s Inclination for Seeking Patterns Encourages Innovation
As clinical psychologist Victoria Stevens explains: “Our pattern-seeking behavior is an essential part of creative thinking, although it can also produce false assumptions and biases when previous experiences lead us to beliefs we do not question. In addition, finding links, connections, and patterns between apparently dissimilar things is essential to creative thinking.”
Your pattern-seeking behavior can benefit you in creative thinking. Just remember to:
- Question your assumptions
- Try to find patterns where it seems like none exist
Combinatory Play allows you to zoom out, see the bigger picture, and spot the patterns. This is especially true at times like this. Think and act creatively and responsibly, not out of fear or panic but out of rational, logical thought. The calmer we are, the better.
Continued in Part 2 . . .
Thanks to Amy Rigby