Creativity, Focus, Neuroscience

The Creativity Hack From Dali & Edison

11 Sep , 2016  

What simple technique did both Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison use to boost their creativity? The good news is you can do it as well, all you need is a few marbles or a key.

The answer is sleep, but it’s a little more complicated.

Edison would sit upright in his chair with a hand full of marbles. He’d think about a problem, concentrate on it, and then let himself fall asleep. The marbles would drop, wake him up, and he’d write down what was in his mind.

Another time, another place, and Salvador Dali used his version of the same technique. You can read Dali’s own account of what he called ‘Slumber with a key’ here. It involved sitting in a bony armchair, ‘preferably of Spanish style’ while holding a heavy key hanging over an upside down plate to make a suitably loud ‘clang’ when it dropped.

Other people that are said to have used such techniques range from Einstein to Beethoven (though I’m yet to find exact evidence for either).

Why does it work? 

“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. It seemed obvious to them after a while”

— Steve Jobs

The Dali-Einstein napping approach is a powerful way of finding and consolidating the connections that Steve Jobs refers to (could I name drop any more in a sentence if I tried?).

In her brilliant book, A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley identifies the technique behind this as bouncing between ‘focused’ and ‘diffuse’ thinking.

According to Oakley, focused thought involves using our well trodden neural pathways. It’s what happens when we concentrate, relying on established links in our prefrontal cortex.

In contrast, diffuse thought is when we relax our attention and create a fluidity of thought and association across multiple parts of our brain. It’s where our minds make unpredictable, sometimes weird links, and takes in the big picture.

Specifically, Edison and Dali cashed in on what is known as the hypnagogia state — those moments between consciousness and sleep — to access diffuse thought, but it’s not the only way.

Think back to a breakthrough you’ve had. A time when you’ve solved a problem by coming at it from a totally different perspective.

It’s very likely that it happened when you pulled focus…  when you left your desk and were walking, taking a shower, or just having a nap.

For best results, you do have to concentrate first. Absorb a problem with focused attention and hold it in your mind… then let go using any number of techniques, including a micro nap.

The key is to use both styles of thinking – focus & diffuse.


1 Response

  1. Jo Lamontagne says:

    I am going to find an old set of keys and try this later. I’ve spent the last month almost in an insomniac state, wasting precious hours NOT sleeping to find answers to problems. I didn’t realise sleep IS the answer!

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