Combinatorial Creativity and the Myth of Originality

The power of the synthesizing mind and the building blocks of combinatorial creativity

Celebrated creators have always known the power of the synthesizing mind.
Celebrated creators have always known the power of the synthesizing mind. Illustration by Ikon Images / Corbis

Editor’s Note: The Innovations blog welcomes this “guest post” by Maria Popova, creator of the Brain Pickings blog.

There is a curious cultural disconnect between our mythology of spontaneous ideation – the Eureka! moment, the stroke of genius, the proverbial light bulb – and how “new” ideas actually take shape, amalgamated into existence by the combinatorial nature of creativity. To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.

Celebrated creators – artists, writers, scientists, inventors – have always known the power of the synthesizing mind and have advocated for embracing the building blocks of combinatorial creativity. “Stuff your head with more different things from various fields,” Ray Bradbury encouraged students in a 2001 address. “You should stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another,” Brian Eno advised. “Creativity is just connecting things,” Steve Jobs proclaimed. “Science,” Darwin recognized, “consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.” “Substantially all ideas are second-hand,” Mark Twain observed, “consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.”

Scientific advances in our understanding of the brain can corroborate this. In his book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman distills the unconscious processing that takes place as we come up with an idea we call our own:

“When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you merely take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden political machinery behind the scenes.”

Great scientists can speak to this empirically. Legendary French mathematician Henri Poincaré once described how he arrived at the discovery of a class of Fuchsian functions: “Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.”

Yet, no matter how much we know about the brain and the inner workings of creativity, the creative process itself will never be easy. Its most frustrating reality is that this crux of combinatorial creation – that magic moment when ideas click together and “make a stable combination” – cannot be forced. In fact, the more we consciously dwell on a problem that requires an innovative solution, the more likely we are to corner ourselves into the nooks of the familiar, entrenched in habitual patterns of thought that lead where they always have.

We can, however, optimize our minds for combinatorial creativity – by enriching our mental pool of resources with diverse, eclectic, cross-disciplinary pieces which to fuse together into new combinations. For creativity, after all, is a lot like LEGO – if we only have a few bricks of one shape, size, and color, what we build would end up dreadfully drab and uniform; but if we equip ourselves with a bag of colorful bricks of various shapes and sizes, the imaginative temples we build might appear to an onlooker to have been inspired by “a ray of grace,” yet we need only look to our bag of LEGOs to be reminded from whence they came.

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