Forced Connections

By: John Cabra

Do you ever ponder the origins of those elusive “Aha!” ideas?

I’ve been eager to explain this moment to our Burmese workshop participants for some time now, particularly as a prelude to introducing the tool Forced Connections—IMU is currently partnering with the National Unity Government’s Ministry of Education to develop rural teachers involved in the civil disobedience movement. This tool is specifically designed to ignite those sought-after “Aha!” moments intentionally. Here’s how I go about explaining it:

First, I begin the process by warming the participants up with a simple question: “Where do you typically have your most brilliant ideas?” Second, I follow up with another query: “What do these locations or situations have in common?” Third, I delve into the scientific underpinnings of this phenomenon. Lastly, I introduce the tool itself.

Common responses I receive include having great ideas while driving, during a shower, walking the dog, just before falling asleep, or while doing the dishes. These activities share a common thread: they induce a relaxed mind. Scientifically, our brains tend to resist uncertainty. When we engage in problem-solving, leaving a problem unresolved creates a sense of uncertainty. Unbeknownst to us, our brains continue to work on solving these problems, albeit at a subconscious level.

How does this happen? It occurs by sifting through our working memories, connecting dissimilar or unrelated elements to form novel combinations. The alleviation of tension, stemming from the resolution of uncertainty, leads to those “Aha!” moments. Scholars have aptly termed this phenomenon the “Associative Theory of Creativity.” To facilitate this process, a relaxed state of mind is essential.

This is the point at which I introduce the Forced Connections tool. I start by presenting participants with a photograph specifically chosen to have no apparent connection to the challenge they seek to address. The more unrelated it is, the better—our goal is to create a state of uncertainty.

When introducing Forced Connections, I begin by priming the participants with a series of questions: What do you see in this image? What else do you notice? What thoughts does it evoke? How does it make you feel? What else comes to mind?

Once I’ve collected their initial responses, I ask, “What ideas for solving this challenge does this photograph inspire in you?” Why do I employ this priming technique? Because I want to actively engage the brain’s working memory, coaxing it to unlock its creative potential. I then encourage participants to be patient with themselves and allow their brains to work their magic.

The Institute for Myanmar United was created in 2020 to release the power of human creativity to help individuals, communities, and nations reclaim their freedom, unity, and hope.