Tag: creative geniuses

The Exquisite Corpse

It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, only a few patterns dominate your thinking. These patterns produce 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 combine your subject with something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated.

Try an experiment. Pick eight random words and give the list to someone or to a small group (for example: flower pot, baby, glass, grasshopper, coffee pot, box, toast and garage). Ask them to divide the words into two groups without giving them any rationale for the division. You’ll discover that people will come up with some very creative classifications. They’ll group them according to “words with the letter o”, “things that touch water”, “objects made in factories”, and so on. No one ever says there is no connection, they invent them.

Though we seldom think about it, making random connections in such a manner are conceptual creative acts. Making random connections were popular techniques used by Jackson Pollock and other Surrealist artists to create conceptual combinations in art. Artists in a group would take turns, each contributing any word that occurred to them in a “sentence” without seeing what the others had written. The resulting sentence would eventually become a combination of concepts that they would study and interpret hoping to get a novel insight or a glimpse of some deeper meaning. The technique is named “The Exquisite Corpse” after a sentence which happened to contain those words.


Have the group bounce ideas and thoughts about the subject off each other for five to ten minutes.

Then, ask the participants to think about what was discussed and silently write one word that occurs to them on a card.

Collect the cards and have the group combine the words into a sentence (words can be added by the group to help the sentence make sense).

Then invite the group to study the final sentence and build an idea or ideas from it.

An Alzheimer’s organization planned to have an auction to raise money for their cause. They planned an elaborate, sophisticated evening and looked for unusual items they could auction. They tried the “exquisite corpse” technique. Some of the words they came up with were people, cruises, creative, furniture, charity, designer, custom, art, thin air, and celebrities. One of the connections was: create—-art—-thin air.

This triggered their idea which was the sensation of the auction. They sold an idea for an artwork that doesn’t exist. They talked a well-known conceptual artist into describing an idea for an artwork. The idea was placed in an envelope and auctioned off for $5,000. Legal ownership was indicated by a typed certificate, which specified that the artwork (10, 0000 lines, each ten inches long, covering a wall) be drawn with black and red pencils. The artist and the owner will have one meeting where the artist will describe his vision for the painting with the owner. The owner has the right to reproduce this piece as many times as he likes.

Michael Michalko

Activate Your Inner Creativity

Experimental social psychologists have conducted numerous experiments that demonstrate how behavior and performance can be “primed” by showing participants certain objects and pictures. In one study, participants who were primed with pictures associated with business — such as briefcases, pens, pictures of people dressed in business clothes, commuter trains, and so on — became more competitive. The social psychologist Michael Slepian and colleagues at Tufts University noticed during a study on “bright ideas” that participants became more insightful and creative when they were primed with an exposed light bulb. In short, they found that even exposure to an illuminating light bulb primes creativity.

Primes have been reported to influence nearly every facet of social life. Yale University psychologist John Bargh had college students unscramble sentences that, for one group, contained words related to stereotypes about the elderly, such as wrinkle and Florida. Upon finishing, participants who had read old age–related words took seconds longer to walk down an exit hallway than peers who had perused age-neutral words. In other experiments, cues about money and wealth nudged people to become more self-oriented and less helpful to others. And people holding hot cups of coffee were more apt to judge strangers as having warm personalities. [The Hot and Cold of Priming by Bruce Bower. Science News. May 19th, 2012; Vol.181 #10]

John Bargh likens primes to whistles that only mental butlers can hear. Once roused by primes, these silent inner servants dutifully act on a person’s preexisting tendencies and preferences without making a conscious commotion. Many animals reflexively take appropriate actions in response to fleeting smells and sounds associated with predators or potential mates, suggesting an ancient evolutionary heritage for priming, Bargh says. People can pursue actions on their own initiative, but mental butlers strive to ease the burden on the conscious lord of the manor.


One way to prime yourself for creativity is to generate an awareness of what you want to be or accomplish. You can do this by creating a “Zeitgeist Board.” Zeitgeist means a general awareness of your general psychological, intellectual, emotional and creative spirit. A Zeitgeist Board is a large poster board on which you paste images, sayings, articles, poems, and other items that you’ve collected from magazines and other sources. It’s simple. The idea is to surround yourself with images of your intention (what you want to create or who you want to become) and, in the process, to encourage your awareness and passion to grow. Lay your intention board on a surface where you can work on it, and try out this thought experiment:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Ask yourself what it is you want to be or to create. Maybe one word will be the answer. Maybe images will appear in your head or, perhaps, a picture best represents your intention. Post the word, image, or picture in the middle of your Zeitgeist Board.

Suppose you want to create a donut shop. Post the words “Donut Shop” or a picture in the center of the board. Now look through magazines and other sources and pull out pictures, poems, articles, or headlines that relate to donut shops and post them on the board. Or suppose you want to write a novel. Similarly post the words or a picture that represents writing a novel to you (e.g., a picture of Ernst Hemingway) and post items that relate to writing a novel on the board.

Have fun with it. Make a big pile of images, words, and phrases. Go through the pile and put favorites on the board. If you add new ones, eliminate those that no longer feel right. This is where intuition comes in. As you place the items on the board, you’ll get a sense how they should be laid out. For instance, you might want to assign a theme to each corner of the board, such as “What I have,” “What I will have,” “What I need,” and “How to get what I need.”

Hang the board on a wall and study and work on it every day. You’ll discover that the board will add clarity to your desires, and feeling to your visions, which in turn will generate an awareness of the things in your environment that can help you realize your vision. You will begin to see things that you did not see before, and, just as importantly, will become aware of the blanks and holes in your vision.

You can then become proactive and imagine the many different ways you can fill in the blanks. Imagine a person who is aware of all the colors except one particular shade of blue. Let all the different shades of blue, other than that one, be placed before him, and arranged in order from the deepest to the lightest shade of blue. He most probably will perceive a blank, where that one shade is missing, and will realize that the distance is greater between the contiguous colors than between any others. He will then imagine what this particular shade should look like, though he has never seen it. This would not be possible had he not seen all the different shades of blue.

My brother-in-law desired to be an artist. His Zeitgeist Board was a collage of pictures of paintings and artists, poetry about art, and articles about artists and their work. In the center of the board, he had a picture of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Over time, he began to imagine conversing with his various prints of paintings. One print that particularly enthralled him was Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. He would focus on the painting and engage in an imaginary two-way conversation. The more he engaged with the painting, the more alive it seemed to become. He would ask the painting questions, such as: What inspired the artist to paint the picture? What was his knowledge of the world? What were his contemporaries’ views of the painting? How was the artist able to communicate over the centuries? What is the artist communicating? He would ask how the colors worked together, and ask questions about lines, shapes, and styles.

My brother-in-law, once a disgruntled government employee, is now a successful artist who has had several showings of his work. He created a psychological environment with his Zeitgeist Board that primed his subconscious mind which influenced him to change his role in the world and become the artist he wanted to be.
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.
Learn how you can use the habits and creative thinking techniques that creative geniuses throughout history to change the world. Read: http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbsM



We have not been taught how to think for ourselves, we have been taught what to think based on what past thinkers thought. We are taught to think reproductively, not productively. What most people call thinking is simply reproducing what others have done in the past. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Once when I was a young student, I was asked by my teacher, “What is one-half of thirteen?” I answered six and one half or 6.5. However, I exclaimed there are many different ways to express thirteen and many different to halve something. For example, you can spell thirteen, then halve it (e.g., thir/teen). Now half of thirteen becomes four (four letters in each half). Or, you can express it numerically as 13, and now halving 1/3 gives you 1 and 3. Another way to express a 13 is to express it in Roman numerals as XIII and now halving XI/II gives you XI and II, or eleven and two. Consequently one-half of thirteen is now eleven and two. Or you can even take XIII, divide it horizontally in two (XIII) and half of thirteen becomes VIII or 8.

My teacher scolded me for being silly and wasting the class’s time by playing games. She said there is only one right answer to the question about thirteen. It is six and one-half or 6.5. All others are wrong. I’ll never forget what she said “When I ask you a question, answer it the way you were taught or say you don’t know. If you want to get a passing grade, stop making stuff up.”

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. To get a sense of how strong these programs are, try solving the following problem.

Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.

2       4       6

He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, and 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.

I am reminded of a story about a student who protested when his answer was marked wrong on a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen. The imaginative student was purportedly Niels Bohr who years later was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.

In answer to the question, “How could you measure the height of a skyscraper using a barometer?” he was expected to explain that the barometric pressures at the top and the bottom of the building are different, and by calculating, he could determine the building’s height. Instead, he answered, “You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (I /9).”

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

The obvious moral here is that education should not consist merely of stuffing students’ heads full of information and formulae to be memorized by rote and regurgitated upon demand, but of teaching students how to think and solve problems using whatever tools are available. In the mangled words of a familiar phrase, students should be educated in a way that enables them to figure out their own ways of catching fish, not simply taught a specific method of fishing.

Read Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius

How to Get Ideas while Dozing

In the history of art, most people could easily argue that Salvador Dalí is the father of surrealistic art. Surrealism is the art of writing or painting unreal or unpredictable works of art using the images or words from an imaginary world. Dali’s art is the definition of surrealism. Throughout his art he clearly elaborates on juxtaposition (putting similar images near each other), the disposition (changing the shape of an object), and morphing of objects, ranging from melted objects dripping, to crutches holding distorted figures, to women with a heads of bouquets of flowers.

Dali was intrigued with the images which occur at the boundary between sleeping and waking. They can occur when people are falling asleep, or when they are starting to wake up, and they tend to be extremely vivid, colorful and bizarre. His favorite technique is that he would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He would then totally relax his body; sometimes he would begin to fall asleep. The moment that he began to doze the spoon would slip from his fingers and clang on the plate, immediately waking him to capture the surreal images.

The extraordinary images seem to appear from nowhere, but there is a logic. The unconscious is a living, moving stream of energy from which thoughts gradually rise to the conscious level and take on a definite form. Your unconscious is like a hydrant in the yard while your consciousness is like a faucet upstairs in the house. Once you know how to turn on the hydrant, a constant supply of images can flow freely from the faucet. These forms give rise to new thoughts as you interpret the strange conjunctions and chance combinations.

Surrealism is the stressing of subconscious or irrational significance of imagery, or in more simplistic terms, the use of dreamlike imagery. Dalí’s absurd imagination has him painting pictures of figures no person would even dream of creating.  Following is a blueprint Dali’s technique.


  • Think about your challenge. Consider your progress, your obstacles, your alternatives, and so on. Then push it away and relax.
  • Totally relax your body. Sit on a chair. Hold a spoon loosely in one of your hands over a plate. Try to achieve the deepest muscle relaxation you can. 
  • Quiet your mind. Do not think of what went on during the day or your challenges and problems. Clear your mind of chatter.
  • Quiet your eyes. You cannot look for these images. Be passive. You need to achieve a total absence of any kind of voluntary attention. Become helpless and involuntary and directionless. You can enter the hypnogogic state this way, and, should you begin to fall asleep, you will drop the spoon and awaken in time to capture the images.
  • Record your experiences immediately after they occur. The images will be mixed and unexpected and will recede rapidly. They could be patterns, clouds of colors, or objects.
  • Look for the associative link. Write down the first things that occur to you after your experience. Look for links and connections to your challenge. Ask questions such as:

What puzzles me?

Is there any relationship to the challenge?

Any new insights? Messages?

What’s out of place?

What disturbs me?

What do the images remind me of?

What are the similarities?

What analogies can I make?

What associations can I make?

How do the images represent the solution to the problem?

A restaurant owner used this technique to inspire new promotion ideas. When the noise awakened him, he kept seeing giant neon images of different foods: neon ice cream, neon pickles, neon chips, neon coffee, and so on. The associative link he saw between the various foods and his challenge was to somehow to use the food itself as a promotion.

The idea: He offers various free food items according to the day of week, the time of day, and the season. For instance, he might offer free pickles on Monday, free ice cream between 2 and 4 P.M. on Tuesdays, free coffee on Wednesday nights, free sweet rolls on Friday mornings, free salads between 6 and 8 P.M. on Saturdays and so on. He advertises the free food items with neon signs, but you never know what food items are being offered free until you go into the restaurant. The sheer variety of free items and the intriguing way in which they are offered has made his restaurant a popular place to eat.

Another promotion he created as a result of seeing images of different foods is a frequent-eater program. Anyone who hosts five meals in a calendar month gets $30 worth of free meals. The minimum bill is $20 but he says the average is $30 a head. These two promotions have made him a success.

The images you summon up with this technique have an individual structure that may indicate an underlying idea or theme. Your unconscious mind is trying to communicate something specific to you, though it may not be immediately comprehensible. The images can be used as armatures on which to hang new relationships and associations.


To discover more creative-thinking techniques read CRACKING CREATIVITY (THE SECRETS OF CREATIVE GENIUS) by Michael Michalko