The Big Bang of Creativity

The big bang of creativity on earth occurred approximately 400,000 years ago with the advent of Homo sapiens, our ancestors.  Before Homo sapiens, the mind of Homo erectus was compartmentalized. Information was directed to one of several compartments and trapped inside. Thought was static and humans had a simple intelligence much like animals have and could learn only general purpose rules for survival.

The “big bang” was the sudden ability of Homo sapiens think fluidly.  Thought was no longer static, it was fluid.  This cognitive fluidity enabled them to integrate and cross fertilize images and thoughts in their imagination.  The ability to blend dissimilar experiences and concepts into new ideas and concepts allowed the Homo sapiens to move beyond the simple intelligence of Homo erectus into creative thinking.  This is when humans became enlightened with new insights and perceptions.  They now could see that even bones and stones were materials that could be combined with other materials to invent a plethora of tools and weapons.

Conceptual blending is unique to the human species, and an operation that takes place at our conscious and unconsciousness levels. Our ancient ancestors routinely blended experiences, constantly, without their awareness, into the creation of emergent new meanings, ideas, and discoveries.  Combining images of spider webs and hunting of animals inspired humans to weave nets so women and children to throw over and trap small prey.  Observing the loyalty they received from the pet animals they fed inspired the idea of gift giving between distant groups.  They conceptually blended “giving” and “receiving” to create the idea of “gift giving” in order to “receive” something.  Beads made from eggshells were exchanged in order to secure future favors and alliances when times became tough.

Conceptual blending is the “heart of all creativity” including the greatest discovery ever made.  The greatest discovery made by humans on this good earth is the art of making and maintaining fire.  Our ancestors, like other animals, had seen fire striking from clouds during thunderstorms, devouring bushes and trees, and devastating large tracts of green land.  They witnessed the sparks fly from the fires to ignite other fires.  They felt the heat from fires.

These images of sudden lightning and sparks combined with their images of banging rocks together to make noise to frighten animals.  The banging of rocks created sparks.  The images of lightning striking trees creating sparks and fires, sparks being blown by the wind igniting other fires, the heat of fire, the heat caused by rubbing sticks together all blended together into the insight that fire could be ignited with sparks and wood shavings and ignited with the heat of rubbing sticks together.

They blended images from the universe of thunderstorms with images from the universe of rocks.  Their minds integrated the images into a blend until one of them got the “Aha!” idea of how to start a fire (figure A).  To our ancestors, these “Aha!” ideas came out of the blue from the Gods or from “sacred” humans such as witch doctors and sorcerers.  Even today there are teachers who believe ideas come out of thin air.

Our ancestors gained superiority on earth because of their mental capacity for conceptual blending.  Conceptual blending is a fascinating dynamic and a crucial role in how we think and create.  Almost invisibly, it choreographs vast networks of conceptual meaning, yielding cognitive products, which, at the conscious level, appear simple.

This way of thinking and imagining is so 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.  But the meaning isn’t contained in either input; it’s actually constructed in the blend.  Through completion and elaboration, the blend develops a structure not provided by the inputs that creates an “emergent” new meaning (figure B).  The Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first to identify this ability to conceptually blend dissimilar subjects into something new.  He said that this ability is a sign of genius.

You may have heard the story of Helen Keller.  She was blind, deaf and mute from an early age and could not speak or communicate.  Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, realized that the key was to somehow teach her a communicable concept.  Sullivan taught her a kind of Morse code with finger play and would scratch the alphabet and words on her palm.  For a long time, Helen could not grasp what this was all about.  She said she did not know Sullivan was scratching words on her palm, in fact, she did not even know words existed.  She would simply imitate the scratches make her fingers go in a monkey-like imitation.

Sullivan, as if in a game, caused Keller to come into contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts such as water standing still in a pail, water flowing out of a pump, water in a drinking glass, rain drops, a stream, and so on.  Each time Sullivan scratched the word “water” on the palm of Keller’s hand.

But suddenly, she realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance in many aspects, which was symbolized by the word water on the palm of her hand.  Helen conceptually combined the different experiences with the word “water,” by mentally bouncing back and forth and comparing the separate experiences with each other and with the word “water” being scratched on her hand (figure C).  Then suddenly she had the “insight” which was the synthesis of the universe of signs with the universe of things.  This discovery initiated a fantastic revolution in Helen Keller’s life and the lives of hundreds of others.

Your teachers may have told you about Einstein’s theories of the universe, but did they ever teach you how a low-level patent clerk got his incredible insights?  How in the world did Albert Einstein even imagine his general theory of relativity, let alone formulate it?  Einstein referred to the way he thought as “combinatory play” in response to a survey that was conducted by the brilliant French mathematician, Jacques Hadamard, in 1945.  Einstein said words or language did not play any role in his thinking.  He would think with certain signs, symbols and images as elements of his thought.  He would voluntarily reproduce and combine these signs and images many different ways using what he called “combinatory play.”

This combinatory play was the essential feature in the way he thought before any connection with logical construction or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.  How else could Einstein have concluded that space and time are not separate but combined and inseparable.  What logic or scientific reasoning would have led him to this insight of combining the universe of time with the universe of space?  Einstein imagined an object in motion and at rest at the same time, which to many is impossible.   A man, Einstein said, who jumps off a house roof and releases any object at the same time, will discover that the object will remain, relative to the observer, in a state of rest.  This apparent absence of a gravitational field arises even though gravitation causes the observer’s accelerating plunge (figure D).  This blending together of simultaneous motion and rest inspired the insight that led him to arrive at the general theory of relativity.

Logic pays no attention to pattern recognition or the blending of two or more dissimilar concepts or subjects.  What, for instance, would the death of Sigmund Freud’s father have to do with Freud’s work on sexual repression?

Freud’s father died while he was studying the psychology of sexual repression.  It was the Jewish custom for the eldest son to close the father’s eyes upon death.  Accordingly, Freud closed his father’s eyes.  He thought a lot about the closing his father’s eyes while simultaneously thinking of his work on sexual repression.  He remembered a book he had once read about the legend of King Oedipus, which was the story of a man who tore out his own eyes.

He made an imaginative connection between the action of “closing eyes” and his theories of psychological repression and conceptually blended them into a new psychological insight (figure E).  Within a few months, he came up with his theory of repressed sexual fantasy popularly known as the Oedipus complex which posits that people repress (closing their eyes) sexual impulses toward one parent and hatred toward the other.  This insight became his crowning moment in Sigmund Freud’s career.

It was not Freud’s intellect that led him to his conclusions.  It was his perceptive recognition of an abstract connection between the “closing his father’s eyes” and “sexual repression.”  When he deliberately thought of “closing his father’s eyes” and “sexual repression” simultaneously, his unconscious mind recognized only those counterparts of each concept that were significant based on his own unique set of experiences.  These counterparts were then projected into a blend that bubbled up into his conscious mind as his theory of sexual repression.

The quintessential activity of creativity is the discovery of some abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of complex wholes.  Creativity is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories — it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.  It involves suspending thought and allowing an intelligence beyond logic to act and create something new.


  1. Michael,
    My son introduced me to “Creative Thinkering” and “Thinkertoys” and I found them to be eye-opening. I am a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and I found your approach to be the missing link in getting my lean teams to think “out of the box”. Industry pays lip service to this notion but you put it right in the crosshairs and make it possible using the right tools!

  2. Chuck,
    I have not read the book by Julian Jaynes but will do so now. Thanks for the reference.

  3. Michael,
    your opening of this post reminded me of a book by Julian Jaynes called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I must admit your term “conceptual blending” sounds much more lyrical than the breakdown of the bicameral mind! Great post. Thanks.

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