Get creative ideas by imagining two opposites or two contradictory ideas.
Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, has extensively studied the use of opposites in the creative process. He identified a process he terms “Janusian thinking,” a process named after Janus, a Roman God who has two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. Janusian thinking is the ability to imagine two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously. Imagine, if you will, your mother existing as a young baby and old woman simultaneously, or your pet existing and not existing at the same time.
Rothenberg found that geniuses resorted to this mode of thinking quite often in the act of achieving original insights. Einstein, Mozart, Edison, Van Gogh, Pasteur, Joseph Conrad and Picasso all demonstrated this ability. It was Vincent Van Gogh who showed in Bedroom at Arles how one might see two different points of view at the same time. Pablo Picasso achieved his cubist perspective by mentally tearing objects apart and rearranging the elements so as to present them from a dozen points of view simultaneously. Looking back at his masterpiece, Demoiselles d’ Avignon, it seems to have been the first painting in Western art to have been painted from all sides at once. The viewer who wishes to appreciate it has to reconstruct all of the original points of view simultaneously. In other words, you have to treat the subject exactly as Picasso had treated it in order to see the beauty of the simultaneity.
In physics, Einstein was able to imagine an object in motion and at rest at the same time. To better understand the nature of this paradox, he constructed an analogy that reflected the essence of the paradox. An observer, Einstein posited, who jumps off a house roof and releases any object at the same time, will discover that the object will remain, relative to the observer, in a state of rest. The unique feature of this analogy was that the apparent absence of a gravitational field arises even though gravitation causes the observer’s accelerating plunge. This analogy and its unique feature inspired his insight that led him to arrive at the general theory of relativity.
Einstein realized that an observer who jumps off a house roof will not, in his or her immediate vicinity, find any evidence of a gravitational field. This apparent absence arises even though gravitation causes the observer’s accelerating plunge. This was the analogy that Einstein said was his happiest thought in life because it pertains to the larger principle of general relativity. (He was looking for an analogy in nature that would allow him to bring Newton’s theory of gravitation into the theory of relativity, the step making it a general theory.
Louis Pasteur discovered the principle of immunology by discovering the paradox. Some infected chickens survived a cholera bacillus. When they and uninfected chickens were inoculated with a new virulent culture, the uninfected chickens died and the infected chickens survived. In seeing the unexpected event of the chickens’ survival as a manifestation of a principle, Pasteur needed to formulate the concept that the surviving animals were both diseased and not-diseased at the same time. This prior undetected infection had therefore kept them free from disease and protected them from further infection. This paradoxical idea that disease could function to prevent disease was the original basis for the science of immunology.
Rothenberg found another illustration in Niels Bohr’s thinking. Bohr believed that if you hold opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble free from your mind. This ability to hold two opposites together led to Bohr’s conception of the principle of complementarity. The very claim that light is both a particle and a wave is inextricably self-contradictory.
THINK IN OPPOSITES
To think in terms of simultaneous opposites, convert your subject into a paradox and then find a useful analogy. Foundries clean forged metal parts by sandblasting them. The sand cleans the parts but the sand gets into the cavities and is time consuming and expensive to clean. The paradox is that the particles must be “hard” in order to clean the parts and at the same time “not hard” in order to be removed easily. An analogue of particles which are “hard” and “not hard” is ice. One solution is to make the particles out of dry ice. The hard particles will clean the parts and later turn into gas and evaporate.
Following are specific guidelines for solving problems based on this thinking strategy which include creating a paradox, finding an analogue and using the unique feature of the analogue to trigger original ideas.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. A CEO noted that when his high-tech company was small, people would often meet spontaneously and informally. Out of these meetings came their best ideas. With the company’s rapid growth, these informal meetings (and the number of good ideas) declined. He tried the usual ways to stimulate creativity (meetings, dinners, parties, roundtables, etc.), but they did not generate novel ideas. He wanted to re-create the spontaneous creative environment.
1. PARADOX. Convert the problem into a paradox. One of the things that distinguishes the vision of genius is its curious relationship to contraries. Niels Bohr, for example, was fascinated with the contrary dimensions of reality. Once in a heated debate over how electrons can appear in one place and then in another without any traveling in between, he declared how wonderful it was that they have met with a paradox. For now they can make intellectual progress. The question to ask is: What is the opposite or contradiction of the problem? And then imagine both existing at the same time.
EXAMPLE: The paradox of the company’s situation was that unless the gatherings were unorganized they wouldn’t produce novel ideas.
2. BOOK TITLE. Summarize the paradox into a book title that captures the essence and paradox of the problem. The book title should be two words, usually an adjective and a noun. Some examples of book titles are:
Sales target— Focused Desire
Different level employees— Balanced Confusion
Seasonal sales cycles— Connected Pauses
Birth control— Dependable Intermittency
Nature— Rational Impetuousness
Reducing the paradox into a book title makes it easier to work with and comprehend.
EXAMPLE: In our example, the CEO summarized his paradox into the book title “Unorganized Gatherings.”
3. ANALOGUE. Find an analogy that reflects the essence of the paradox. Think of as many analogies as you can and select the most suitable.
EXAMPLE: Our CEO found a suitable analogy in nature. He thought of herring gulls who are very unorganized scavengers but effective survivors.
4. UNIQUE FEATURE. What is the unique feature or activity of the analogue? Creative ideas often involve taking unique features from one subject and applying them to another. John Hopfield was a physicist who knew a lot about spin glass, which are magnetic substances in which the atoms have a spin and interact in either a positive or negative way with each other. Hopfield discovered that the brain is composed of neurons that are either on or off and either excite or inhibit one another. He took a set of unique features from spin glass and applied them to the brain thereby creating his famous neural network theory.
EXAMPLE: In our example, the CEO determined that the unique feature of his analogy is “scavenging.” The gulls gather for an easy meal when fishermen throw unwanted fish and fish parts back into the sea.
5. EQUIVALENT. Use an equivalent of the “unique” feature to trigger new ideas.
EXAMPLE: The equivalent of this unique feature might be to have people come together for convenient meals at attractive prices.
6. BUILD INTO A NEW IDEA. The company will serve inexpensive gourmet food in the company cafeteria. By subsidizing the cost of the gourmet food, the CEO encourages employees to gather there (much like the herring gulls drawn to the fishermen’s free food) to meet informally, mingle and exchange ideas.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.