As I lay on my back in our farm’s small alfalfa hay field, the buoyant clouds take on endless shapes. My sisters squeal as they point out bunny rabbits, an elephant, and smiling clown faces; I see turtles, trees, and a duck. I squint my eyes desperate to see what they see. They point harder, outlining the shapes; I squint harder, following their imaginary traced lines. Suddenly I see it: the elephant! How could I have missed it before? It’s so obvious, legs, trunk, ears, and all. I continue scanning the sky, but now all I can see is the elephant. I can’t ‘unsee’ it. The wind propels its dance across the sky. The elephant drifted by, and so did time.

Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” New ideas are quite like the clouds from my childhood, where you see something — an image, a connection, a thought — that you hadn’t previously. Steve went on to say, that people saw new ideas “because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

This sentiment is shared by the legendary paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould in a book entitled Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born by Denise Shekerjian. In Uncommon Genius, Shekerjian shares her insights on creativity from conversations with 40 artists, critics,  inventors, musicians, scientists, and writers — all winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant. Gould reveals to Shekerjian,

“My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about twenty things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections. They’re real connections that you can forge into essays or scientific papers.”

Gould’s genius is clear in his tenth and final anthology of essays, I Have Landed, which blends a spectrum of rigorous scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction. For 27 years, his original essays for the magazine Natural History cover everything from Aristotle to zoology, penning some of the most articulate and eloquent science writing of our time. Gould presents seemingly disparate events, leading the reader to discover as a present-day Sherlock Holmes the connection that can only be described in hindsight as obvious.

Divergent thinking, the ability to see things from multiple vantage points — a prerequisite to making connections — is what Jobs and Gould did so well. In the mid-1950s, the American psychologist J.P. Guilford coined the term divergent thinking, as well as its antithesis convergent thinking. In his psychometric studies of human intelligence, Guilford describes this mode of thinking as diverging ideas from a single one, to explore solutions to a possible problem. Although perhaps Gould did less exploring. When recalling his experiences to Shekerjian on writing Ontogeny and Phylogeny — his technical treatise deconstructing the long-held notion that individual development (ontogeny) recapitulates the evolution of species and lineages (phylogeny) — he says,

“I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread. That’s how it went together. There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.”

Once again, Gould’s masterful ability to weave the thread of connections between two ideas is remarkable. Scientists have long tried to measure this type of thinking in Goulds of the world. In the early 1960s, Mednick & Mednick developed a series of tasks called the remote associates tests (RAT) as a measure of creativity and divergent thinking. This now common test presents three seemingly unrelated words and asks participants to think of a single word that can be added to all three to create a meaningful term. For example, what word can be added to: cottage, Swiss, cake. Did you get it? Did you have a mini-Eureka moment? Go ahead and check your answer, and try more RAT questions that are not categorized “Very Easy” [2]. A RAT question is a valid measurement because it requires both elements of creative thinking: novelty and usefulness.

A key implication in these tests and of divergent thinking more generally is that you see the problem from many solutions. In the RAT question above, you might have first tried a few incorrect solutions. Or take, for example, the triptych below. Each picture hides two images; which do you see first? Can you spot them both? If the second image took longer to see than the first, how much more quickly now can you mentally flip back and forth between the two?


While some psychologists claim that which you see first “says something about you”, the point here is not to peer deeply and infer characteristics of the seer; but rather, to explore ways to see the world differently — to see problems from different perspectives. Jobs’ notion of creativity-as-just-connecting-things requiring different life experiences reinforces this idea. It is not surprising from this lens that Jobs green-lightedThink Different” as Apple’s ‘come-back’ campaign, selecting an thoughtful range of historical subjects, including Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Edison, and twenty others, who exemplify a difference in thinking and life experiences.

Importantly, divergent thinking is a mode that permits sampling of possible new connections between ideas. The act of mental sampling here is key: whether it is classic ‘brain-storming’ to generate possible solutions to a problem, trying to find the fourth word that connects the previous three, or staring at an image or cloud to see what else could be hiding. In each case, the goal is to take on different perspectives, sample possible solutions, and rapidly iterate. This heuristic process, also this site’s etymology, is the most basic, fundamental trial-and-error problem solving strategy.

However, heuristics are limited by experiences and available mental models, and can also lead thinkers astray based on cognitive biases. Recall the RAT example of cottage, Swiss, and cake; if you’ve never heard of cottage cheese, are of Swiss nationality, or are of the unpopular opinion that cheesecake tastes disgusting, then the associative connection between these disparate ideas would be more difficult or perhaps not possible to grasp — here, Jobs likely would recommend to have greater personal experiences to reduce bias and increase divergent thinking, and to eat more cheese.

The remaining question, though, is whether ideas can be unthought. Can associations be unconnected? Can images or elephants in clouds be unseen? This question is not asking about biases and if they can be overcome. More specifically, given the combinatorial nature of creativity and the flashes of insight that occur when new connections are made, what would un-connecting them look like? Scientific studies on learning and memory are focused on the biological underpinnings of neural connections — literally the physical connections that neurons make through neurogenesis and neurite outgrowth, and how connections break through neural pruning. An emerging idea in this field posits that your brain needs to forget in order to grow [6]. If true, then perhaps the more relevant question to consider is whether unthinking is really just forgetting.

Creativity requires both new and useful. If the combinatorial nature of creativity and idea generation requires sampling from a pool of neither creative nor useful, then unthinking it seems is part of the thinking process. Although arguably more difficult. Researching this topic, David Eagleman, neuroscientist, adjunct professor at Stanford, and host of the PBS show "The Brain” says,

“The brain takes the path of least resistance because it’s the most efficient”

Eagleman's explanation coincides with research from Wharton psychologist and "Originals" author Adam Grant, who found that the world’s greatest innovators don't come up with better ideas — they just persist long enough to come up with more ideas, suggesting that the first idea is not always the best. In his own lab, Eagleman uses a simple exercise that he borrowed it from Thomas Edison to overcome the brain's laziness: whenever working with lab member on a problem, he asks them to come back with 10 answers instead of just one. “That's because the first idea they have will rarely be the best one. Instead, it'll probably be the handiest”, Eagleman says. John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who laid the foundations of modern macroeconomics, echos this sentiment when he wrote decades earlier in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones,…”

Take, as a final example, the mysterious image at the head of this article. What do you see? Unlike the triptych, it hides only one image. Some will see it straight away; others will require more effort — sampling possible solutions until another Eureka moment. In the next article I will reveal what it hides. But until then the question remains: after you see it, can you unsee it?  The constant sampling of useful and new connections, discarding the old and intuitively incorrect, until: Eureka, you’ve found it — that special combination of new and useful. But these must be captured, before their beauty drifts away, like the ephemeral cloud elephant fleeting across the sky.

Further reading:

  1. I came across the mysterious figure image years ago, and tracked down its use in Buddhism Plain & Simple, and am including a link here as an altogether excellent read on thinking and mindfulness. The original attribution, I learned recently, is from John McCrone’s odyssey through  linguistics and anthropology, The Ape That Spoke, which controversially concludes that imagination and higher emotions are language-driven extensions of the animal mind.
  2. More tests here: www.remote-associates-test.com
  3. Image 1. Further reading.
  4. Image 2 and further reading.
  5. Original attribution for image 3. Additional images.
  6. Excellent article by Nautilus on learning & forgetting.