Creative thinking from Leonardo

Company: Michael Milkalko Reccommended by: Phil Green

Juxtapositions that elude mere mortals

Creative thinking from Leonardo

What I learned about Creative Thinking from Leonardo Da Vinci

If one particular thinking strategy stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see relationships to which others are blind. They set their imagination in motion by using unrelated stimuli and forcing connections with their subject.

You can change your thinking patterns by connecting your subject with something that is not related. These different patterns catch your brain’s processing by surprise and will change your perception of your subject. Suppose you want a new way to display expiration dates on packages of perishable food and you randomly pair this with autumn. Leaves change color in the autumn. Forcing a connection between “changing colors” with expiration dates triggers the idea of “smart labels” that change color when the food is exposed to unrefrigerated temperatures for too long. The label would signal the consumer, even though a calendar expiration date might be months away. Our notion of “expiration” dates was changed by making a connection with something that was unrelated (autumn) which triggered a new thought pattern which led to a new idea.

In order to get original ideas, you need a way to create new sets of patterns in your mind. You need one pattern reacting with another set of patterns to create a new pattern. Recently, an engineer needed to place a large generator into an excavated area. The usual way to do this was with a heavy crane, which costs $8,000 to lease. Randomly leafing through a National Geographic magazine, he read about Eskimos and the construction of igloos. He connected igloos made of ice with his problem and came up with an ingenious solution. He trucked in  blocks of ice and placed the ice in the excavated area. Next, he pushed the generator onto the ice and placed the generator over the location for it. When the ice melted, the generator settled perfectly into the location.

I first learned of this “connecting the unconnected” thinking process from Leonardo Da Vinci who wrote how he “connected the unconnected” to get his creative inspiration in his notebooks. He wrote about this strategy in a mirror-image reversed script “secret” handwriting which he taught himself. To read his handwriting, you have to use a mirror. It was his way of protecting his thinking strategy from prying eyes. He suggested that you will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or the shape of clouds or patterns in mud or in similar places. He would imagine seeing trees, battles, landscapes, figures with lively movements, etc., and then excite his mind by forcing connections between the subjects and events he imagined and his subject.

Da Vinci would even sometimes throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the stains. Once while thinking of new ways to transport people, he threw a paint-filled sponge against the wall which produced a scattering of irregular shapes. Trying to make sense out of the meaningless shapes, he imagined one group of shapes to resemble a rider on a horse. He perceived the bottom half of the horse’s feet as resembling two wheels. Thinking of a horse on wheels, then of a structure that resembles a horse on wheels, he realized people could be transported on two wheels and a frame that resembles a horse; hence, the bicycle which he invented.

The metaphors that Leonardo formed by forcing connections between two totally unrelated subjects moved his imagination with a vengeance. Once he was standing by a well and noticed a stone hit the water at the same moment that a bell went off in a nearby church tower. He noticed the stone caused circles until they spread and disappeared. By simultaneously concentrating on the circles in the water and the sound of the bell, he made the connection that led to his discovery that sound travels in “waves.” This kind of tremendous insight could only happen through a connection between sight and sound made by the imagination.

Da Vinci’s knack to make remote connections was certainly at the basis of Leonardo’s genius to form analogies between totally different systems. He associated the movement of water with the movement of human hair, thus becoming the first person to illustrate in extraordinary detail the many invisible subtleties of water in motion. His observations led to the discovery of a fact of nature which came to be called the “Law of Continuity.”

Da Vinci discovered that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other.

In tetherball, a ball is fastened to a slender cord suspended from the top of a pole. Players bat the ball around the pole, attempting to wind its cord around the pole above a certain point. Obviously, a tethered ball on a long string is able to move in many different directions, but it cannot get away from the pole. If you whack at it long enough, eventually you will wind the cord around the pole. This is a closed system.

Like the tetherball, if you focus on two subjects for a period of time, you will see relationships and connections that will trigger new ideas and thoughts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

This is what happened to NASA engineer James Crocker when the Hubble telescope failed and embarrassed NASA. In the shower of a German hotel room, NASA engineer James Crocker was contemplating the Hubble disaster while showering and absentmindedly looking at the adjustable shower head that could be extended and adjusted in various ways for personal comfort and cleanliness to the user’s height. He made the connection between the shower head and the Hubble problem and invented the idea of placing corrective mirrors on automated adjustable arms that could reach inside the telescope and adjust it to the correct position. His idea turned the Hubble from a disaster into a NASA triumph.

It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made. This connection will lead to the discovery of an original idea or thought. This is what some people mistakenly call “divine” inspiration or “out of the blue.”

DuPont developed and manufactured Nomex, a fire-resistant fiber. It’s tight structure made it impervious to dye. Potential customers (it could be used in the interior of airplanes) would not buy the material unless DuPont could manufacture a colored version. A DuPont chemist read an article about gold mining and how the mines were constructed. This inspired the chemist to compare Nomex to a “mine shaft” in a gold mine, a subject that had nothing to do with Nomex. What is the connection between a “tight structure” and a “mine shaft?” To excavate minerals, miners dig a hole into the earth and use props to keep the hole from collapsing. Expanding on this thought, the chemist figured out a way to chemically “prop” open holes in Nomex as it is being manufactured so it could later be filled with dyes.

In nature, a gene pool that is totally lacking in variation would be totally unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In time, the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness,  with consequences that would be fatal to the species’ survival.  A comparable process operates within us as individuals. We all have a rich repertoire of ideas and concepts that enable us to survive and prosper. But without any provision for the variation of ideas, our usual ideas become stagnate and lose their advantages. For this variation to be truly effective it must be “blind.”

When we use our imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. We have not been taught how to process information by connecting remotely-associated subjects through trial and error. This is true for inventors, artists, writers, scientists, designers, businesspeople, or everyday people fantasizing about a better life. DaVinci’s thinking process provides a means of producing blind variations of ideas through the use of unrelated stimuli, such as random words, random objects, pictures, magazines and newspapers to produce a rich variety of unpredictable ideas.

 The “random object” technique generates an almost infinite source of new patterns to react with the old patterns in your mind. Random words are like pebbles being dropped in a pond. They stimulate waves of associations and connections, some of which may help you to a breakthrough idea. There are several ways to select a random object. You can retrieve random words from a dictionary by opening it, by chance, at any page, closing your eyes and randomly putting your finger on a word. If the word is not a noun continue down the list to the first noun, Another way is to think of a page number (page 22) and then think of a position of the word on that page (say the tenth word down). Open the dictionary to page 22 and proceed to the tenth word down. If the word is not a noun continue down the list until you reach the first noun.
You can use any other resource (e.g., magazine, newspapers, books, telephone yellow pages, etc.). Close your eyes and stab your finger at a page. Take the noun closest to your finger.

EXAMPLE: I usually retrieve five random words when I use this technique. Suppose our challenge is to improve the automobile. The group of random words we blindly drew from the “Random Words” list are:

Apollo 13
electrical outlet

(1) LIST CHARACTERISTICS. Work with one word at a time. Draw a picture of the word to involve the right hemisphere of your brain and then list the characteristics of the words. Think of a variety of things that are associated with your word and list them.
For example, some of the characteristics of a nose are:
“Different shapes and sizes”
“Sometimes decorated with pins and jewels”
“Has two nostrils”
“Can be repaired easily if broken”
“Hair inside”
“Decays with death”

(2) FORCE CONNECTIONS.  Make a forced connection between each characteristic and the challenge you are working on. In forcing connections between remote subjects, metaphorical-analogical thinking opens up new pathways of creative thinking. Ask questions such as:
- How is this like my problem?
- What if my problem were a…?
- What are the similarities?
-….is like the solution to my problem because…?
- How …like an idea that might solve my problem?

EXAMPLE. Connecting ”a nose has two nostrils” with “improving the car” triggers the idea of building a car with two separate power sources; a car with battery or electric power for city driving and liquid fuel for long distances.

(3) WHAT IS ITS ESSENCE? What is the principle or essence of your random word? Can you build an idea around it? For example, the essence of a nose might be “smell.” Forcing a connection between “smell” and “improving the automobile” inspires the idea of incorporating a cartridge in the auto during manufacturing that warns the driver of malfunctions with various odors. If you smell orange blossoms, for example, it’s time to have your brakes checked, or if you smell cinnamon, you might have a gasoline leak and so on.
For each random word, list the principle or essence, characteristics, features and aspects and force connections with the challenge. Another example is derived from the random word “Apollo 13.”  Astronauts used the LEM as an emergency alternative power source in Apollo 13 in order to return to earth. Connecting this thought with the automobile led to the re-design of the automobile engine so that it can be used as an emergency power generator for the house during power failures. E.g., plug the house into the car.

 (4) CREATE MANY CONNECTIONS. When using the “Random Word” list, use all five words in the group and force as many connections as possible. Allow yourself five minutes for each word when you try it. Five minutes should be ample time to stimulate ideas. You should find that long after the fixed time period of five minutes, further connections and ideas are still occurring.

Imagine that you are invited to play roulette with someone else’s money. You can keep your winnings but your losses are paid for you. It’s a game of chance you can not lose. You can never be sure of winning on any particular bet, but you know that if you played long enough, you would win, sooner or later. Chances are you would play as often as possible despite the unpredictability of the game. You would play as often as you could, in order to increase your chance of winning.

Using this model, it is possible to see what can be done about randomly connecting unrelated subjects in thinking. The first step is to be aware that there is the possibility of this thinking strategy. The second step is to learn how to do it. The third step is to use this strategy as often as you can and to get rid of any inhibitions which interfere with your using it. The more times you use it and the more different ways you use it, the more you increase  your chances of coming up with original ideas and creative solutions to problems.


Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck),  Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Genius), and Creative Thinkering (Putting your Imagination to Work). His website is


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