Brain Calisthenics

We road-test three exercises designed to stretch the imagination.

Welcome to Guinea Pig, a new occasional feature in which we test services to see if they’ll help you become a better employee and, dare we say, a better person. This month: Do creativity exercises get the brain pumping new ideas?


Exercise: Capturing unexpressed potential
Source: Robert Epstein, West Coast editor, Psychology Today; visiting scholar, University of California San Diego

Place a pad and pen by your sofa. Relax on the couch, holding a spoon over a plate placed on the floor. As you begin to get drowsy, the spoon will drop to the floor, hitting the plate, waking you up. Grab the pad and sketch out whatever you were seeing during that drowsy state. The goal is to focus attention and preserve unusual ideas. Epstein says Salvador Dali got ideas this way, and Thomas Edison had a similar approach.

How it worked for me: Incomplete. I slumped off the couch like one of Dali’s clocks in The Persistence of Memory, the spoon ended up in the sofa cushions, and it took me three hours to wake up from my nap.


Exercise: Random Entry
Source: James P. (Pat) Carlisle, president, the de Bono Group

What are you trying to fix? Write it down. Then pick a random word from the dictionary — the first noun on the page you turn to. Play the association game with that noun and come up with a number of words you think of when you hear that word. For example, “banana” might produce the words “fruit,” “mushy,” “sweet,” “yellow,” and “peel.” Then take those words and relate them back to what you’re focusing on.

How it worked for me: This gets the juices flowing. My focus issue was to meet deadlines better, and yes, words such as “banana,” “mouse,” and “frog” generated some good ideas that got me thinking about ways not to slip and — eek! — jump into trouble with my boss.


Exercise: SCAMPER
Source: Michael Michalko, author, Thinkertoys: A Handbook for Business Creativity (Ten Speed Press, 1991)

Michalko recommended a technique invented by Alex Osborn, a pioneer in understanding creativity, in which you accept that there really are no new ideas, only updates of existing ones. With that in mind, take the subject you want to think about and ask the questions below to generate ideas. SCAMPER is a mnemonic to remind you of what to ask.

S=Substitute? Who else? What else?
C=Combine? Can you merge an idea with another one?
A=Adapt? What else is like this? What could you copy or emulate?
M=Magnify and modify? What can be added? Time? Power? Features? What can be altered? Can we change the color, shape, sound, or smell?
P=Put to other uses? Can we use this dessert topping as a floor wax? Can we extend it? Can we do spin-offs? Can we enter other markets?
E=Eliminate? What can be subtracted? Can we make this smaller? Lighter? More streamlined?
R=Rearrange and reverse? Can we interchange components? Can we change the pace, the schedule? Can we turn this upside down? Can we reverse roles?


How it worked for me: Mixed. With a blank-sheet-of-paper subject, such as generating new story ideas, this method didn’t work at all. But when I pretended to be a product manager looking to revitalize a brand of cookies or design an MP3 player, SCAMPER sent me running to the keyboard to enter in everything I came up with.

Got an idea for Guinea Pig? Send it to David Lidsky.


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