Value those mental leaps

Euripides was one of ancient Greece’s box office stars. A contemporary of Sophocles, his tragedies include Medea, Children of Hercules, Ion and Women of Troy. Popular though he was, Euripides was often criticised for his zealous use of deus ex machina. Translated loosely as ‘god from the machine’, it refers to the practice where actors playing gods were lowered to the stage by a crane-like device to conveniently tie up loose plot lines. The gymnastic mental leaps required did not always go down well. As Aristotle complained, writers “ought always to seek what is either necessary or probable”. That said, modern-day researchers of creativity and innovation point to the ability to make mental leaps – to see connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information – as a critical quality of innovators. It’s now accepted practice to encourage Euripidean-scale mental leaps to limber up tired brains. In The Innovator’s DNA, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen and his colleagues identified associative thinking as an essential strand of that highly prized ‘DNA’. Successful innovators, they say, “think differently by fearlessly uniting uncommon combinations of ideas”. Where some of the connections Euripides demanded of Greek theatergoers strained credulity, modern-day innovators recognise mental leaps for what they are: a useful warm-up tool, and an indicator of the awesome associative capacity of the brain. “When the brain is actively absorbing new knowledge, it is more likely to trigger connections between ideas (thus creating a wider web of neural connections) as it toils to synthesise novel inputs,” Christensen and his fellow researchers say. Disruptive innovators force themselves to cross borders – technical, functional, geographic, social – constantly. “If we do the same,” Christensen says, “placing ourselves in the midst of bustling intersections of diverse ideas and experiences, exciting associations will naturally happen.”

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