Creativity Group

Introduction Part II

10 Apr 95

In Part I, I gave my own simple explanation for the slow linear pace of innovation in the tribal period of man's history, and the reason for its subsequent acceleration once cities were founded from about 8,000 BC and onwards.

In Part II, I give an equally simple summary of Arthur's Koestler's "Bisociation Theory". Although I still have his book, The Act of Creation, I last read it many years ago and I'm not going to quote from it or attempt to summarise it beyond the following sentence, which I'll put in upper case. THE ESSENCE OF HIS THEORY IS THAT ALL ACTS OF CREATION INVOLVE THE MENTAL CONJUNCTION OF TWO, HITHERTO QUITE SEPARATE, IDEAS. And that's all that needs to be said.

Koestler gives many examples of high creativity but the feature that is common to them all (apart from the principle of bisociation itself) is that the top creative geniuses of this world such as Darwin, Einstein, Poincare, great novelists, poets, etc don't produce ideas at the drop of a hat. They only emerge after long periods of intensive thought. What happens is that one thought or problem is held persistently in the mind--perhaps for weeks, months or years--during which time it is able to temporarily associated with thousands of other ideas and impressions acquired accidentally in the course of the day. Sooner or later, one of them "clicks" with the resident problem and the solution then rapidly emerges.

I first came across Koestler's Bisociation Theory some 25 years ago and was deeply impressed. The more I read and pondered on his book, the more convinced I became that this had successfully explained a great deal about creativity. I subsequently came across a brilliant anthology of autobiographical statements by about 40 creative geniuses ("The Creative Process", edited by Brewster Ghiselin) and all these (without exception, if I remember rightly) confirmed the thesis.

I remember one day I was thinking about this as I was pushing the lawn mower in my back garden. I thought to myself that if bisociation was so, then one ought to be able to create any new idea out of any circumstances. I therefore decided to use the lawnmower I was pushing as one of the ideas and to permutate it or force it with the first image I saw on the TV screen inside the house. I walked into the house and the first thing I saw were some circus elephants blowing water over themselves from their trunks. I got some paper, a pencil, went out into the garden, sat down by my garden pond and started making notes.

It was very hard-going at first (I'll return to the reason for this later) but, if I remember rightly, I created about 20 or 30 ideas in the course of the next hour or so. Among these was an idea of having a flexible tube attached to the lawnmower which could fill side-hanging panniers which would be easier to empty instead of having to bend down and empty a large scoop every now and again. It was nothing momentous and I forgot about it fairly soon afterwards. A day or two later, I suddenly realised that I had re-invented a small-scale version of a combine harvester! If I'd been a farmer rather than a suburban mower of lawns and if the period had been 50 years previously, then I could have been the real inventor of the combine harvester--if there was one.

The idea of bisociation remained fallow for several more years. Then, one day, I was approached by the Principal of Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) to ask if I could help with some classes they were running for redundant business executives. They had taken all the usual business courses, etc, and knew all about starting new businesses, but were actually short of ideas. Could I help? At first, I demurred but after giving it some thought, I thought of a practical method.

Accordingly, on the first day, I turned up in a lecture hall in front of a group of 25 or so people (all as grey-haired then as I am now), armed only with an illustrated children's encyclopedia. As this posting has gone on long enough, I write about the method itself tomorrow in Part III.

Keith Hudson 6 Upper Camden Place Bath BA1 5HX England