Creative Connections

“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.”  – William Plomer

“Creativity generally involves crossing the boundaries of domains.”  – Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

It is well understood that creativity is strongly associated with making connections between previously unconnected ideas, and most powerfully (most disruptively) when those ideas represent opposing or contradictory concepts or when they come from very different domains.

Latest developments in neuroscience show that the brain works by making connections between different perceptions, emotions and thoughts along with existing content and prior experience.  Thus sensory and cognitive inputs are not filed in the brain in long shopping lists, but rather they are used to build associative networks of linked ideas and themes.  That is, we do not think linearly, but in side steps.

More interestingly, some of the latest theories of mind, develop the idea that the basis of human thought is built on the connections themselves.  Thus the brain works by identifying connecting ideas (call them analogies, symbols or metaphors) and using these ideas to link together mental content into associative networks.  In some theories, the metaphors are the key links, but some would argue that emotions are the critical linchpins, and that as we develop from infants into adults, the keys to developing our mental frameworks are emotional experiences.  When we experience similar emotions or feelings, the brain will develop connections between the associated perceptions, thoughts and context.  This makes sense if the goal of our mental and physical behaviour is to understand, predict and control our lives (“man the scientist” in the words of George Kelly).  It also explains why our mental model of the world would become very “unusual” if our early emotional experiences are also unusual.  Most importantly, it leaves emotional experience as the primary and key driver of all that we do.

A great example of a mental analogy that most of us make is the bouba/kiki effect first observed by Wolfgang Köhler in the 20s (using different words) and repeated recently by V.S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard in 2001 (and the subject of a brilliant talk by V.S. Ramachandran on   In the experiment, they asked American and Indian students (with different primary languages) to assign the words “kiki” and “bouba” to the shapes above.  95% to 98% of them used bouba to describe the round shape and kiki to describe the jagged shape.  This provides very strong evidence that the brain is taking information from different sensory domains and creating more abstract “themes” from them (and has been replicated in young infants).  It also suggests that language is not completely arbitrary, as “bouba” is associated with soft and more rounded mouth movements than “kiki”.  We all commonly use cross-sensory metaphors – for instance, I am often accused of wearing “loud” shirts, although not everyone experiences colour and sound in quite the same way.

However, such metaphors are akin to a mapping across sensory domains in the same way that is seen in humans with synaesthesia.  Synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation in one sensory domain triggers responses in another sensory domain.  For example, one of the most common forms of synaesthesia is called grapheme -> colour synaesthesia in which letters and numbers are perceived as inherently coloured (Vladimir Nabokov describes this is his autobiography).  While the condition is not common, it is thought that we all experience such cross-sensory effects to some extent in early infancy, although as the brain develops the sensory modalities become more and more specialized (which would have evolutionary advantages in terms of identifying external threats).  Of more interest, is that such effects appear to be more common among “creatives” (by some estimates at least eight times more common), and runs in families (it is genetic and caused by excessive cross-wiring in the brain).  Synaesthetes include Nabokov, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney and Richard Feynman.  It seems most prevalent among musicians including Olivier Messiaen, Duke Ellington, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt and Syd Barrett!

Therefore, being able to make connections across different domains does appear to fuel creativity and innovation!  It is common in qualitative research to use projective techniques to empower expression.  The use of metaphor and analogy to help create connections between domains aids disruptive innovation and is also a key tool in creating communication with emotional resonance with consumers.

More importantly, next time you are struggling for creative ideas, stop thinking about your immediate problem and go and do something different!   New stimulus of any kind is always helpful for creativity, so try some different food, or visit a museum or gallery and look at some exhibits you’ve never seen before, or listen to some music from a different genre or new band.  You can guarantee that your brain will help you find some new connections!


The Psychology of Personal Constructs by George Kelly

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

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