Albert Einstein is credited with coining the phrase ‘combinatory play’ in a letter to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard when describing to Hadamard how is thought processes worked. Einstein wrote that combinatory play is:
‘the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another’ and he considered it ‘the essential feature in productive thought.’
For Einstein, this play was the way he generated new ideas, how he worked towards breakthroughs and the reason he is believed to be such a creative thinker. By taking a break from his work and doing something totally unrelated, he was allowing his subconscious mind to continue working on a problem, recognising patterns and making connections, while his conscious mind was busy playing the violin (Einstein’s prefered choice of combinatory play).
Taking a mental break can boost creativity and productivity. If you feel stuck on an issue, maybe it’s time to take a break. If you don’t have a violin handy, you can try:
- Taking a walk
- Deep breathing
- Having a chat with a friend
- Reading a book
- Taking a shower or bath
- Going for a jog
- Playing with the dog
Really, you can do anything at all. Try and choose something you find relaxing, an activity you enjoy and which allows you to tune out so that your brain can solve the problem you are quietly remunerating on.
You can also play games to help boost your creativity by using the concept of combinatory play in a far more literal sense.
Exquisite corpse, or exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis), is a game in which words or images are collectively assembled.
The game requires at least two people. Each collaborator adds one word to a sequence, either by following a rule (such as noun, adjective, verb, pronoun, etc) or by only seeing the end of what the previous person contributed.
You can also play a similar game by dividing a page into sections and passing the page around so that each person draws in one section and when the page is unfolded you have a single large picture.
The game, played by artists and creative thinks since the early 1900s has led to the inception of many collaborative creative works, and also frees the mind so you can have a ‘Eureka!’ moment and solve your brain block.