Paint & Pipette
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Paint & Pipette

For Deep Synthesis, Deprive Your Senses

Hope you don’t get claustrophobic,” the radiologist said. “You’re gonna be in there for 20–30 minutes. Some people freak out, so hit this little button if you start to panic…” and with that, he sucked my head, shoulders, torso, and legs into the narrow opening of the MRI machine.

I would have been nervous if I hadn’t been excited. As the beeping and whirring started circling around my head, all I could do was revel in the jumble of connections that finally had space for formation, deprived as I was of external stimuli. The half hour I spent in there couldn’t have passed more quickly. In a way, it was almost over too soon.

I’m not crazy! Just earlier today, a world-class product leader at a tech decacorn told me how she courts breakthroughs: “I can only be inspired when I have sensory deprivation. I go to the pool, and I bring my problem into the water with me. There’s something about not being able to see or hear anything, really, that triggers my imagination. I always get out of the pool with four or five new ideas.”

I’m not the least surprised. In our hyper-connected world, moving at our hyper-frenzied pace, we fail to create space for the incubation which is so critical to illumination, to realizing new connections.

It doesn’t have to be hard! You don’t have to get an MRI, or even go to the pool. Joyce Carole Oates goes on walks up the same hill whenever she’s stuck. Even looking at nothing is an empirically-proven way to facilitate new connections, because “ a shift of attention from external to internal stimuli that benefits creativity and problem solving by reducing the cognitive load and enhancing attention to internally evolving activation” ( Salvi et al, Northwestern University).

Sensory deprivation is an interesting technique, because as my product leader friend said, “Good ideas take distance from stimulus. If you keep looking at the screen, new ideas aren’t going to pop in.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Related: Encourage Disconnection
Related: Allow Time for Incubation
Related: Take A Walk
Related: Look At Nothing

Originally published at on May 12, 2022.



We’ve gotten creativity all wrong. Profound misunderstandings of how creativity works keep us from our most breakthrough thinking. Paint & Pipette illuminates the often counterintuitive tactics that drive differentiated outcomes across industries and disciplines.

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Jeremy Utley

Jeremy Utley

Director at Stanford Teaches leadership & entrepreneurship. Studies history of invention & discovery. Shares insights w fellow students of innovation.