Albert Einstein is arguably the most famous genius in the modern era thanks to his contributions in the field of physics. Scientists were so enthralled by his genius that not very long after his death in 1955, they removed his brain to examine it– talk about literal brain pickings. However, the most significant insight into the way Einstein’s mind worked was what French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard received from Einstein: a letter. And it was in that letter that Einstein first mentioned the phase Combinatory Play.
Albert Einstein defined Combinatory Play as:
the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another
He considered it “the essential feature in productive thought”.
Almost all notable thinkers agree that generating new ideas doesn’t come from nowhere, but from combining ideas to form an entirely new one. Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation contains the fundamental idea that creativity is an act of “bisociating” (not merely associating) two ideas from two incompatible frames of thought such as in making puns. Renowned paleontologist and biologist Stephen Jay Gould says that creativity is also a process of connecting the dots and seeing a pattern.
With so many dots to connect and so many frames of thought to bisociate, how can our mind create an idea out of so many probabilities? Paula Scher says it is intuitive thinking. Even though we are working and thinking in the conscious level, our subconscious mind is busy in the background making connections and looking for patterns up to that “Eureka!” moment. (/yo͞oˈrēkə,yəˈrēkə/: a cry of joy or satisfaction when one finds or discovers something.)
Therefore, in order to for us to be able to use combinatory play, we must allow our subconscious mind to work. Stress prohibits us to “listen” to our subconscious mind while it’s working. So the first thing to do is stop whatever you are doing or thinking and just breathe. Don’t stress yourself out.
Next, Einstein recommends dabbling in another mental channel. That is: do something else that is totally unrelated to what you are doing. When you are stuck in a level of a game, stop playing and walk your dog. Writer’s block? Go to the beach and behold the sunset. Be really in the moment.
It’s like slacking off but not really. Even though you are participating in a new activity, your mind still has not gotten over the first one. It is still busy figuring out your first problem albeit in a subconscious level, connecting dots and bisociating. You might be surprised to figure out a hidden solution to your issue while you’re on the walk, you’re opening yourself up to receive inspiration from unexpected places. Einstein gained most of his ideas during his violin breaks. Another example is how Archimedes figured out buoyancy while taking a bath. That is combinatory play: the ability to allow your inner genius to step in and fill in the blanks.
This is inherent in all of us. As creative thinkers, we often practice combinatory play to generate original ideas.