Entanglement theory in physics holds that, under certain circumstances, seemingly isolated particles are actually connected through space and time. The quantum state of each can be described only in reference to the others. In psychology, minds can be similarly entangled. In Snap! Seizing Your Aha! Moments, I described several examples, like the following:
One day in 1905, Albert Einstein walked with his colleague, Michele Besso, an engineer. As they pondered issues concerning motion, Einstein laid out his futile approaches to the subject thus far. As he described them, he experienced a eureka moment. “With this new concept,” he later said, “I could resolve all the difficulties completely for the first time.” He soon completed a paper on his special theory of relativity.
He told someone else that, in the whole of Europe, he could not have found a better sounding board than Besso for trying out his ideas. Besso often could not comprehend how Einstein had gained inspiration from his “inadvertent statements.” Yet he had.
Creative collaboration, whether intentional or accidental, has its own energy: one person says or does something that another person filters into a different context, giving it a new spin – basically a mash-up. Despite distinct individuals being credited with important discoveries, most realize that teamwork, brainstorming, and even the inarticulate absorption of a professional culture can be whetstones for honing their thinking into a significant insight. Diverse minds coming in contact can spark any number of ideas.
The aim of 6-3-5 Brainwriting, developed in Germany for a structured approach to innovation, involves gathering 6 people and having each generate 3 new ideas in 5 minutes, and to keep going for half an hour. The starting person writes 3 ideas on a sheet of paper. Then she passes the paper to the next person, who reads them and generates 3 more. The participants are encouraged to find inspiration in another’s perspective, and the time pressure generates energy.
“Rolestorming” is another approach. People take on roles and come together to think about a problem. For example, the “superheroes” method involves addressing the problem as Superman, Spiderman or Wonder Woman might. They might even facilitate this with masks or costumes. The goal is to adopt a perspective different from one’s own: What would Superman think about this? Or Sherlock Holmes? Or King Arthur?
We can find the source of entanglement in the human brain.
When neuropsychiatrist Nancy Andreasen studied inventive geniuses, she learned that they have little need for the conceptual structures that most people use for comfort and predictability. Geniuses can tolerate ambiguity, along with mixing and matching, so they’re more mentally agile and open to new experiences. The brain, Andreasen said, appears to be a system of feedback loops that constantly associate diverse thoughts and generate new ones. Those who can “float” are better able to play with new associations.
People from strikingly different backgrounds who are open to innovation can create things that neither might have thought of on their own – especially if they’re inventive or eager to explore the results of psycho-braiding.
Among my favorite such tales is this one:
Recently, the Smithsonian offered an exhibit dedicated to a remarkable woman, Frances Glessner Lee, heir to the International Harvester fortune. She’d hoped to study law or medicine, but her parents steered her toward the more ladylike pursuits of homemaking and entertaining. Among them was the art of creating miniature dioramas. She was good at this; she once made a miniature replica of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Strangely enough, this talent primed her for a unique contribution when she crossed paths with someone else.
Lee’s brother brought home a friend, George Burgess Magrath, who was studying legal medicine. Lee and Magrath became friends and she wanted to assist him in his efforts to set up a scientific death investigation protocol. She realized that she could apply her talent for making miniatures into an educational device: she would make miniature crime scenes as teaching tools. This inspiration led to the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”.
Lee had noticed that police officers often missed the meaning of clues, due to a lack of practice and direction. She had the money to change this. She hired a carpenter and studied crime stories and cases to make her “nutshell” dollhouses into challenging scenarios. Then she used them in the week-long seminars that she sponsored at Harvard, where she’d helped Magrath to establish the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine. By 1949, thousands of state troopers, detectives, coroners, district attorneys, insurance agents, and crime reporters had attended the seminars.
With seemingly unrelated skills, Lee and Magrath each had brought something distinct to the table and both were enriched, along with many others. Like Lee’s inspiration, innovation can arise from the serendipitous mash-up of diverse disciplines or perspectives. An appreciation for cross-fertilization and an attunement to fresh ideas are the keys to inspired psycho-entanglement.