Creative Bisociation

In my experience, many people confuse creativity with artistic ability. They also think that you have to be original to be creative. Both of these assumptions are only partially true.

Artists, in general, are creative, this is true, but so are accountants, parents, mountain climbers, and business owners. To be creative means to solve problems using novel approaches. And here is where the second assumption kicks in.

To be “novel” means to take a fresh, unique approach for the person, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be “original.” If a person solves a problem for themselves creatively using a new and novel approach and they later discover someone else already did the same thing, that doesn’t make it any less creative.

All ideas are the result of either connections or bisociations. Connections join two related ideas. Bisociations join two unrelated ideas.

Bisociation tends to take place in our subconscious. It relies on our brain making unusual or illogical connections, and so we are less likely to do so when making conscious decisions.

Thinking consciously about a problem reliably leads to logical connections. For example, if I run out of petrol, how will I get to the petrol station? I have several options which I run through in my conscious mind and evaluate: I can walk, hitchhike, call a friend, call roadside assist and so on. In situations like these, we work through the most logical option, making connections between related ideas until we decide upon the best course of action.

Inventing the printing press, however, required Gutenberg to make a link between two completely unrelated ideas to “innovate” a new process. He had a problem to solve — he saw a wax seal and wanted to press letters to leave an impression, but he didn’t know how to press multiple letters onto a full sheet of paper. It was only when he went to a local fair to drink wine that he saw a wine press and made the unusual bisociation between a wax seal and a wine press and develop what we now know as “movable type” and the letterpress printing process.

Gutenberg already had the problem percolating in his subconscious, so he was able to recognise the solution when it presented itself from an unrelated source, even though he wasn’t actively “thinking” about the problem at the time.

Actively thinking about a problem and making logical connections gets most people through the day. Your fridge stops working, one of the kids is sick and needs to come home early, you want to make dinner, but you’re missing a vital ingredient and so on. All of these day-to-day problems can be solved by making logical connections between related concepts.

It is when you are trying to innovate and solve a unique problem, or find a unique solution to a common problem that you need to make an unrelated connection or bisociation, and this can only be done by getting your subconscious on board.

There are three ways to access your subconscious reliably. Let’s look at those now:

The first and most reliable way to access your subconscious is to use continuous stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without stopping for three pages A4 longhand, when done every day, can build up your creativity fitness to a point where your subconscious shows up to the page to answer life’s curly questions on a regular basis.

The second way to access your subconscious is to think actively about the problem for a while, then put it on the back burner and go and do something else. Take a shower, mow the lawn, do something active and wait for the solution to pop in your head.

The third method is to sleep on it. Think about the problem actively, right before going to sleep, then have a dream diary at the ready.

So the next time you are required to innovate and solve a unique problem, or find a unique solution to a common problem, you might want to ask your subconscious to look for a bisociation between two unrelated ideas.