11 Imagination-Jarring Tips From Creative Geniuses

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There are plenty of competing theories for how to boost your creativity: paint your room blue, work someplace noisy and distracting, complete a bunch of silly sentences Mad-Libs-style. But there’s no better source for creativity advice than a creative genius. Here are 11 tactics practiced by big thinkers, artists, and innovators.

1. Hold your breath

Ig Nobel Prize-winner and Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, who has more than 3000 patents to his name, has a Plexiglas board installed in his pool. He thinks underwater and takes notes on his board, a process he calls "creative swimming." And while it seems silly to take notes underwater when there are perfectly serviceable desks available, Nakamatsu swears by it, saying "oxygen is the enemy of the brain."

2. Embrace insomnia

Leonardo da Vinci had a lot going for him, what with the still-unmatched talent and cultural importance and, you know. Mona Lisa. But he was a weird mix of perfectionist and procrastinator, and sometimes he'd work for hours on one minuscule detail while leaving the larger scope of a project untouched. To keep himself going for as long as possible, he practiced polyphasic sleep — short naps every four hours, for a total of around two hours of sleep per day. Probably not for everyone.

3. Or just take a nap

Thomas Edison was a fan of the power nap. He gave it a good twist, though, which he claimed was integral to some of his best ideas. Edison would sleep sitting upright in his chair, elbow propped on the arm with a handful of marbles. He would think about his problem until he fell asleep, and soon enough he would drop the marbles on the floor. When the racket woke him up, Edison wrote down whatever was in his head, regardless of what it was—creative solutions, new ideas, a reminder to pick up milk on the way home.

4. Save yourself for science (or what-have-you)

Though he’s been called the greatest geek of all time, Nikola Tesla was a reasonably handsome guy, and the ladies liked him. But he attributed much of his success as an inventor to his strict celibacy, and no evidence exists that in his 86 years he ever had an affair with anyone. Ever. But rumor has it he recreated ball lightning in his lab, so it was probably worth it.

5. Find the bad apple

There's no reason to believe it'll work for anyone else, but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe insisted that a rotten apple on his desk helped him write effectively.

6. Engage hermit mode

Artist Jasper Johns worked three full months of each year in total solitude, painting and hanging out in a cottage in St. Martin from Christmas through March. Before he defiantly flew to Yugoslavia to reclaim his international chess champion title, Bobby Fischer lived for nearly 20 years in undisclosed locations. Add to the list J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Howard Hughes, Emily Dickinson... the list is long, but it's clear that for some people, hiding from the public eye is the key to thinking differently. (With mixed results, obviously.)

7. Chill out for a while

When Cervantes had deep thoughts to think, he filled a tub with frigid water and sat with his feet and calves submerged until he had an epiphany.

8. Head north

Charles Dickens was a quirky guy. One of his required writing-time necessities was a desk that faced due north, and even when he slept he took every precaution to ensure that his body was aligned with the poles—head at the northern end, feet toward the south.

9. Get a little macabre

In addition to his bizarre directional work and sleep arrangements, Dickens also liked to hang out at the morgue, where he watched people work on incoming bodies. He followed his "attraction to repulsion" to crime scenes, too, where he'd try to analyze the locations to solve murders. Whether any of this was helpful to his literary plots is second to the regular practice of thinking creatively to solve hard problems. (That said, there's no report that Dickens ever solved a murder.)

10. Invest in that Clover machine

Just about everyone loves coffee, but almost no one loves coffee in the way Honore de Balzac did. He worked 16 hours a day, tossing back cup after cup of specially blended Parisian java (some sources say he could down 50 cups in a day). To overcome caffeine tolerance, he ate dry grounds, and on an empty stomach, no less, famously saying that after a mouthful of coffee beans, "sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army...."

11. Booze!

Alcoholism and artistry go way back, and everyone has a favorite drinky singer or writer because there's no shortage of them, really. But it seems science is siding with Hemingway and Winehouse on this one: a recent study shows that a few drinks can release your verbal inhibitions (obviously) and allow your mind to wander just far enough to come up with novel solutions to complicated problems. At a blood alcohol level of .075 percent, the study's volunteers were able to solve word association puzzles faster and better than the control group of sober peers.

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July 22, 2014 - 4:03pm
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