Sometimes the creative thinking process is flowing without us really knowing how it works, but at least as often we may get stuck and don’t really know how to proceed. In these situations, different stimuli such as words, images, objects, etc. can be very effective in sparking the associations and thus the flow of ideas. Most effective are unrelated stimuli, which should be as different and distant as possible from your problem to really get you thinking completely outside the box.
The following five tips will help you next time you get stuck in your creative work.
1. Random words. We often think in words. The words are not just words, but they are often loaded with emotions, memories, thoughts, associations that differ from one person to another. A randomly chosen word can therefore be a very powerful stimulus for new ideas. The more unrelated the word is from the problem that should be solved the better. This forces the brain away from the normal thoughts and puts the brain in a completely new starting position. If we draw a picture from the word, we will stimulate several parts of our brain.
Random words can be generated in many different ways. The easiest thing is to take a book from the bookshelf and look up a random page. Then put your finger somewhere on the page without reading the text: la voilá! A somewhat more sophisticated way is to use a random word generator.
- Problem: How to make your teenagers wash their dishes.
Random word: “pattern”.
Solution 1: You put a code lock (digit pattern) on the refrigerator. You change the code every day and they only get it if they are doing the dishes: No dishes, no food!
Solution 2: You pour something sticky on the floor in front of the sink. The pattern after footprints reveals who’s washing up and who’s escaping.
- Problem: Where to go on holiday.
Random text: “scene”
Solution 1: Travel to Milan and go to the La Scala Opera.
Solution 2: Don’t make a scene and follow the wish of your spouse.
In order for random words to work, it’s important that you really use the random word you have drawn and don’t try again and again until you find one that works well. You’re probably back in your normal thinking. You must also train yourself not to associate the word with an idea that you are already aware of. Instead, take the challenge and try to find the odd approaches. However, it’s not always that a word leads to a clever idea. You can therefore use several different words to get a stream of ideas but be honest how you use them.
2. Random images. This method is much like random words and the general principles are identical. Random images, however, can generate different ideas, as images stimulate other parts of the brain than words. Some people also have their preference in thinking in pictures rather than in words (Einstein was one of them) and for such people, random images could be a more powerful technique. In fact, it is often possible to figure out whether a person primarily thinks in pictures or words. Next time someone is sitting and thinking, follow her look. If it goes up to her left, she is most likely a picture thinker.
As with the words, you can easily find suitable images online, such as newly uploaded photos on Flickr or Photo.net. Another favourite is Pixabay, from which many of the illustrations on this blog come. Even more than for the random words, it is important to really consider the purpose of the exercise, and not get caught into the aesthetic aspects of these photos that can be spectacular. Do not limit yourself to any particular category of images but explore widely.
When you randomly selected two to three photos or other images, start associating around them. Write down in detail what you think, feel and experience when you see the pictures. Is there any hidden story in the picture? Allow you to make absurd and farfetched interpretations. Once you feel that the associative flow begins, you go through all your interpretations and impressions and try to conceptually mix them with different attributes related to your problem.
3. Music. Music has a very special power to put us in different moods. Music also makes us associate to different events or situations, either because we recall the music being played at a special occasion or because the music itself makes us think in images. Research has shown that some types of music can affect both the mood and creativity.
When listening to music, we stimulate many different parts of our brain at the same time, not only our conscious thinking in the prefrontal cortex, but also other deeper parts of our brain and our association areas. Music is born out of creativity and stimulates our own creativity.
You can use the music actively for idea generation as well. Begin by playing a 10 minutes playlist with different types of music (classical, jazz, funk, rock ballads). Choose music that is not too familiar and not too easy pieces so that the brain may work a little. Make sure to sit comfortably with eyes closed in a half-dark room and let your thoughts float away. Then take 5-10 minutes to write down as many ideas as possible without thinking too much and without judging any idea.
An alternative exercise is instead actively listening to a little more advanced piece of classical music or jazz and noting music changes, tempo changes, sound levels, etc. Try to connect the changes in the music to the specific feelings or impressions they evoke.
4. Objects. Physical objects stimulate the tactile sense (using yet another part of your brain). Ahead of a brainstorming session, it may be useful to bring some random items from home or nature. These can then be used to generate ideas.
5. A random web site. A random web site also works well as an idea stimulus. There are generators, such as Randomize, to find them. Once you have opened the web site, try to absorb its essence and spirit. What is it about? Is there any general idea behind? What are they trying to say? Try to see similarities and differences compared to your problem. Do you get any insights? Ideas? Useful thoughts and associations?
An odd and fantasy provoking site that I found this way is zoomquilt.org.