AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

29 March 2013

Connections.

Leonardo, Codex Atlanticus (detail), 1503


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.
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.
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.

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