Making Lists Can Spark Creativity By Freeing Your Unconscious

Your best idea yet could be triggered by a simple but powerful list.

Listing, whether for practical or creative purposes, is liberating. When we write things down, our minds get organized, information solidifies, and from the murky depths of the unconscious emerges order.

But not all listing is ordered, strangely. The true magic of lists lies in their randomness, according to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in his 1994 essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing (pdf). He recommended writing random words and then learning to discern patterns in these seemingly accidental collections, finding connections and artistic inspiration.

Bradbury’s lists were simple. For example:

  • The Lake
  • The Night
  • The Crickets
  • The Ravine
  • The Attic

The writer triggered his unconscious by putting pen to paper and noting whatever nouns came to mind. He poked his intuition awake, discovering preoccupations hidden from him. The lists became seeds for stories and titles, and even when his conscious mind was unwilling to supply inspiration, Bradbury’s lists served as missives from an unconscious self.

He started making random lists in his 20s and it worked for him. Bradbury became one of the most popular American writers of the 20th century, and wrote every day. This method helped him to find his way semi-consciously through the fog of his thoughts.

“These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull,” he explained. Bradbury said the wise writer knows his subconscious. But finding it every day is not easy. The route is not direct and lists helped him find it.

How our brains work is mostly unknown, scientifically speaking. But cognitive research has shown that the mind feels unburdened by practical lists. Unfulfilled goals wear us down and work on the brain, draining energy. To-do lists seem to trick us into feeling as if tasks are already being addressed, lessening that tax.

List-making lightens our load by releasing our hold on information that’s necessary but not vital. “Clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro-resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home…write it down, then prioritize things,” explains neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind.

How lists work to trigger subliminal secrets is less clear. Scientists still can only speculate about the unconscious. Nevertheless, researchers increasingly believe the unconscious is a “perceptual, evaluative, and motivational” actor in humans, operating upon us as in plants and animals. It’s doing important work, which is as real and maybe more fundamental to intelligence than our conscious mind.

Consciousness in humans has perhaps even been given too much credit, says John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale. There’s lots of evidence that during rest periods, the brain keeps works on problems, with the unconscious delivering answers to us in symbols, for example in dreams. As novelist Cormac McCarthy writes in an essay on language in Nautilus on April 20, the mind does a lot of its work subconsciously using something other than words and numbers. There’s an essential primal intelligence we’re not aware of surfacing solutions. He writes:

[T]he fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

Creative, mystical, and intellectual types have long tried to access the depths—their primal selves—and converse with the unconscious using various means, including drugs, meditation, dance, and trance writing, among others. Great minds of all kinds know that we don’t know ourselves. Einstein believed that combining conscious work with play allowed creative ideas to make their way through the subconscious brain, unrestricted by logic—he was often inspired after playing violin, for example.

As for Bradbury’s noun lists, they resemble the writing of a Kabbalist, or Jewish mystic, scribbling individual Hebrew letters randomly to trigger a spiritual epiphany. The mystic enters a trance and examines the letters and wisdom emerges, a word in the scribbles that at first seemed random. Similarly, Bradbury listed seeming nonsense, whatever nouns came to mind, to find his hidden truths. Maybe it could work for you, too.


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