How To Boost Your Creativity The Einstein Way—With Combinatory Play

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It’s been more than 2,200 years since Archimedes ran naked through the streets of Sicily shouting, “Eureka!” (“I’ve found it!”), but there’s still a lot we could learn from that moment.

As the legend goes, the Greek mathematician figured out how to prove the king’s crown was not pure gold—and discovered the principle of buoyancy—when he happened to take a bath and notice water overflowed from the tub as he submerged his body.

While Archimedes’ principle made significant contributions to physics, there’s another concept in this story that can help us with creativity: combinatory play.

What 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, well, thoughts (because who wouldn’t want a preview into how Einstein’s mind worked?).

In response, Einstein wrote a letter, later published in Ideas and Opinions, explaining 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.”

What did he mean by this?

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 just plain 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.

If taking a bath helped Archimedes discover the principle of buoyancy and playing violin helped Einstein theorize about time and space, combinatory play just might be the ticket to your next creative breakthrough.

How Combinatory Play Frees Your Brain And Feeds Creativity

“Creativity is just connecting things.” - Steve Jobs

Stuck in Traffic on the Neural Pathway to Nowhere

To understand why combinatory play boosts creativity, let’s look at how the brain works.

The brain’s building blocks are neurons: nerve cells that receive and transmit signals along neural pathways. As Harvard professor of psychiatry John Ratey writes in A User’s Guide to the Brain, certain pathways are forged at birth, such as the ones that control your breathing and heartbeat. Others, however, 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.

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Comfort In Familiarity

Your brain is continually striving for order and predictability, and as a result, can get pretty set in its ways. When you encounter something novel, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) part of your brain is wired to review old rules and apply them to this new situation. It does not want to invent new ways if it can help it.

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.

Your Brain, The Pattern Seeker

While hastily applying old lessons to new situations can limit your creativity, the brain’s inclination for seeking patterns can encourage innovation, too. 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.”

So it seems that your pattern-seeking behavior can serve you well in creative thinking as long as you:

  • Question your assumptions

  • Try to find patterns where it seems like none exist

That second point is an area where combinatory play can help. It’s tough to connect the dots when you’ve got tunnel vision. Combinatory play allows you to zoom out, see the bigger picture, and spot the patterns. This could explain why Archimedes linked the problem of figuring out if the crown was made of pure gold to the fact that his tub overflowed when he got into it to take a bath.

4 Ways To Use Combinatory Play To Get Out Of A Brain Rut

Now that you see how the human brain can get stuck in a rut thanks to neural pathways and a fondness for the familiar, how can you free your brain and lead it on a path to innovation?

Based on research and real-life examples from great minds, here are four ways to get out of your brain rut by using combinatory play:

1. Cross Train Your Brain

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Take a page out of the athlete’s playbook and cross train your brain. An Olympic runner doesn’t prepare for her next competition by simply running laps on the track; she pursues other physical activities such as swimming, weight training, or even pilates, for example. Each cross-training activity works a different, but complementary, part of the body that will help her get stronger in her event overall.

The same goes for your brain. If you’re a novelist, try your hand at poetry. If you’re a painter, dabble in sculpting. If you’re a computer scientist, play around with web design.

With creative cross-training as well as physical cross-training, the link might not be obvious at first.

For instance, how did playing violin help Einstein theorize about matter and energy? A study from UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin might help shed some light. Researchers found that giving piano lessons to preschoolers significantly improved their spatial-temporal reasoning— a key skill needed for math and science—much more than giving computer lessons, singing lessons, or no lessons at all.

“The theory is that as music is structured in space and time,” writes Ratey in A User’s Guide to the Brain, “practicing it will strengthen circuits that help the brain think and reason in space and time, important for math."

So try a new activity within your field or related to it; you’ll expand your neural connections and strengthen your brain overall.

2. Take A Shower (Or Do Some Other Mundane Activity)

In 1990, NASA was flummoxed by the problem of how to fix the Hubble Space Telescope’s distorted lens—until one of their engineers took a shower. While in a German hotel room, NASA engineer James H. Crocker noticed the European shower head was adjustable to suit different heights. He realized that, by using that same concept, they could create an automated device to reach inside Hubble and install corrective optics.

What was at play here? First, creativity and relaxation could be linked.

Doing something boring, like showering, doesn’t require substantial cognitive effort, so our brains are free to wander. And contrary to popular belief, a brain “at rest” isn’t really resting at all. Fairly new to neuroscience is the idea of the “default mode network,” a brain region that becomes more active when we’re at rest, such as during daydreaming. Some researchers believe there is a positive correlation between the default mode network and creativity. Mind-wandering may allow the conscious to give way to the subconscious, so the brain can connect disparate ideas.

Second, distractions may boost creativity. Research by Harvard professor Shelley Carson found that high creative achievement was associated with low latent inhibition, or the capacity to screen out irrelevant information, especially if the participants had a high IQ.

In the case of Crocker, if he had chosen to dismiss the adjustable shower head as irrelevant (after all, what did it have to do with the Hubble Space Telescope?), he would have missed his flash of insight entirely. For the creative mind, inspiration can be found everywhere. Sometimes, you just need to distract yourself long enough to notice it.

3. Sleep On It

Regarding the process of discovery, scientists have proposed that there is an incubation period during which “unconscious processes contribute to creative thinking.” In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway reveals how he safeguarded his creativity through such a process:

“I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything…”

And in a later chapter:

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

It looks like this pioneering American author was onto a neuroscience breakthrough way before his time.

In 2009, a study out of the University of California San Diego was published suggesting that sleep may assist combinatorial creativity. In particular, researchers found that study participants who were allowed to slip into Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM)—the stage during which we dream—showed an almost 40% improvement over their earlier creative problem-solving test performances, while those who had only non-REM sleep or quiet rest showed no improvement.

The authors of that study hypothesized that when we’re in REM, our brains are better able to integrate unassociated information, which is essential to creative thinking (and can explain why dreams are so bizarre).

So if you’re feeling stuck on a problem, try going to bed. You just might have a more creative solution in the morning.

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4. Indulge Your Inner Copycat

Is anything truly original? According to artist Austin Kleon, the answer is no. In 2005, Kleon came up with the novel idea to use a marker to black out words in a newspaper until poetry emerged from the remaining prose. He even published a book of his blackout poems. The problem was, his idea wasn’t so novel after all: Another artist had been doing the same thing—for 40 years.

This realization inspired Kleon’s TED Talk “Steal Like an Artist” and a book of the same name, in which he asserts that nothing is original and all artists build upon previous work.

Rather than plagiarizing someone, get inspired by and improve upon someone else’s creations.

What might that look like?

  • If you’re suffering from writer’s block, buy a pack of those word magnets and rearrange them until you come up with creative phrases on your fridge.

  • If you’re not sure how to move forward on a project, bounce ideas off of your teammates and see if you find any hidden gems in their suggestions.

  • Or, if you’re building a product and stuck in the design phase, search for competitors who have made similar products, find where their customers are unhappy, and design something new that solves the problems your competitors failed to address.

As Kleon says, “Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.”

Bye, Bye, Brain Rut!

While we may not make scientific contributions of the likes of Archimedes or Einstein, it’s comforting to know that even the greatest minds in history got stuck in a rut sometimes. If you need a new way of thinking, use combinatory play to give your brain a boost:

  • Participate in creative cross-training to expand your brain’s neural connections.
  • Let your mind wander by doing something mundane, like taking a shower.
  • Go to bed and let your subconscious mind connect the dots during REM sleep.
  • Use another person’s work as a springboard for inspiration and improvement.

Follow these tips, and it won’t be long before you have your own “Eureka!” moment (though let’s hope you’re fully clothed).


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