Paint & Pipette
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Paint & Pipette

Look At Nothing

Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” I couldn’t agree more. Creativity is certainly a function of connection — indeed, the fundamental task of the innovator is to make connections — but what if it’s a function of disconnection as well?

If a new idea is simply a new connection, it’s worth considering how connections get made. My understanding is, sometimes we need to give our brains space to connect the inputs we’ve so carefully curated.

A couple of fascinating studies have revealed the important place that “ looking at nothing” has in the synthesis of new connections. According to Fernanda Ferreira from the University of Edinburgh, “ …The visual system creates and stores detailed internal memory representations, and looking at nothing facilitates retrieval of those representations.” Just as thinking out loud adversely affects performance in solving insight problems, it would appear that visual processing can impair synthesis of connections.

According to Carola Salvi from Northwestern University, “ This ‘looking at nothing’ behavior has been observed during thinking that does not explicitly involve visual imagery (mind wandering, insight in problem solving, memory encoding and search) and it is associated with reduced analysis of the external visual environment. Thus, it appears to indicate (and likely facilitate) 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.

As much as we neglect deliberate-connection seeking, we are surely guilty of neglecting disconnection as well. Which is to say, by all means, seek inspiration ( Steve Jobs did!); but after you do, don’t move on to a thousand other distractions. Give yourself space to synthesize the new inputs you’ve just gathered: look at nothing.

Related: Make Connections
Related: Recombine Existing Parts
Related: Input->Output
Related: Space For Inner Dialogue
Related: Encouraging Disconnection

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Originally published at on December 8, 2021.




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.

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