Connecting the Dots . . . Differently

Posted on 18th Feb 2019

According to Albert Einstein, everyone’s favorite genius, “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” This is an eloquent way of saying tough problems require outside-the-box thinking. Then, from the world of neuroscience, there’s the recent discovery that REM sleep (the dream phase) can enhance creative problem-solving. Let’s combine these ideas and see what we can create.

We’ve long known that great ideas come to people in their sleep. French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes literally dreamed up the scientific method. Likewise, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev came upon the periodic table in a dream – which has become a nightmare of memorization for chemistry students. Elias Howe conceived of the sewing machine while asleep, Einstein of relativity, Mary Shelley of Frankenstein, and Paul McCartney of the masterpiece “Yesterday”. We often use the expression “let’s sleep on it” to mean let’s get a fresh perspective and new insights from a good night’s sleep.

But sleep isn’t the only way to leave “the plane of our original conception” and come up with creative solutions.  As Jonah Lehrer explains in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, our minds seek first to solve a problem in a linear fashion, i.e., by connecting the dots in familiar ways that have worked for us before. This approach works quite well for everyday problems, but not as well for stubborn, entrenched problems or novel challenges that won’t budge with the usual linear push. The more we attempt familiar solutions, the more frustrated we become. At some point, we feel stuck. That’s when not thinking can help.

Our minds keep working on solutions even when we stop consciously focusing on the problem. In fact, we change gears and go into a “non-linear” problem-solving mode. Unconsciously, we connect the dots in less familiar ways and run through new combinations we’d never consider in our conscious problem-solving. Then – Voila! – an idea comes to us seemingly out of the blue. Who knew that walking the dog, taking a shower, or mowing the lawn could be an idea incubator?

Knowing we think more creatively when we stop focusing, we can consciously nourish our unconscious minds. As Jane Porter writes in Fast Company (6/2/14), you can hack your sleep by reading creative or inspirational books at bedtime or by asking your mind to work through a particular problem while you’re asleep. It may sound hokey, but it often works. Give it a try.

Trusting your sleep and taking detours from your conscious focus are two ways to move away from an original conception and solve a “worthy problem”.  Along the same lines, we can gather ideas from other people, including others who are unfamiliar with the issue we’re trying to solve. It’s all about finding new and different ways to connect the dots. Research quoted in Lehrer’s book reveals that the most effective problem-solving teams are sprinkled with a few people from other departments or disciplines who bring fresh perspectives and new ways of combining ideas to come up with solutions.

Outside-the-box thinking isn't obvious - by definition - so we do well to practice reliable ways of off-roading during mental road trips. Dr. Einstein’s wisdom helps. So does the wisdom of Dr. Seuss when his Cat in the Hat says,  “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh the things you can think if only you try!”

Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019