Random Stimuli

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Several authors have recommended the use of random stimuli of various kinds (see Creative Thinking, Lateral Thinking, Problem-Solving through Creative Analysis), which suggests there is a fundamental significance for being open to possibilities from everywhere. Although the concept is often used informally, a formal approach may look like this:

  1. Identify your criteria for ideas – e.g. ideas for solving a problem or tackling some aspect of it, an idea to be built on, a hypothesis to be investigated, etc. Spend some time on this stage for better-quality outcomes later.
  2. Pick a stimulus at random, by looking or listening to everything around you indoors and outdoors, something that catches your attention, opening a newspaper, dictionary, catalogue, book of pictures, throwing a dice at random or any other method that appeals to you.
  3. You should now relate this random stimulus back to your original problem; this could be done using simple Free Association
  4. On the other hand you could go for a full Excursion, by describing the stimulus (how it works, what it does, what effects it has, how it is used, size, position, etc). Followed by ‘force-fit’ pieces of this comprehensive description back to the problem to recommend relevant ideas.
  5. Should a random stimulus fail to work, pick another and keep trying.

Some variants to try:

Combining fixed and random elements: Choose a specific element of the problem and name it the ‘fixed element’. Now select a random stimulus via any chosen method and free-associate way is which these 2 elements could be combined. You can convey these directly to the problem, or use the 2-element combination itself to trigger additional ideas. Now select a new random stimulus, repeat the process with the same ‘fixed element’ and after several cycles of this choose a fresh fixed element and repeat.

Select 2-3 grammatically random stimuli:

  • Noun + verb
  • Adjective + noun
  • Verb + adverb
  • Noun + verb + noun

Try to create an unusual phrase, for example if you observed a school and a plane flying overhead, that might yield phrases such ‘flying school’ or ‘teaching flying’. You could free associate further phrase combinations from the one created so ‘flying school’ might generate ‘elevated learning’, etc.

Go out of your way to attempt something ‘alternative’ – chat to people you wouldn’t normally choose to (even if it’s the office bore!), stroll round parts of your work place you don’t usually have contact with, if something catches your attention be curious and explore the thought, take different transportation to and from work. When you have found something that seems different, build ideas around it.

Encourage incubation: Be aware of the problem, subconsciously in your day-to-day life, as you go for walks, shopping, work or at the gym. Without too much effort, make notes if ideas spring to mind unexpectedly (see also Bunches of Bananas).

Watch a demonstration of this technique by UC Berkeley Students:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1-OziXpL2w