Visit the Mycelium website for twice weekly challenges.
The mycelium is the root network of a fungus. The largest living organism in the world is a mycelium in Oregon that’s 2 and a half miles across and thousands of years old. It is the perfect metaphor for the potential of the human mind to create vast new networks.
Tapping into Ancient and Modern Research on Creativity
The principles behind Mycelium draw from the occult systems of mediaeval heretics and the findings of recent neuroimaging research, boiled down into an easy to play game that primes the brain with everything it needs to be more creative.
We think of the imagination as something wonderful. And it is. Wonderful, and powerful. But several hundred years ago it was precisely these qualities that landed some of the pioneers of the art of memory in trouble. People had been using visual techniques, early forms of what we might think of as a mind palace, to memorise things since ancient Greece. These systems all involve the same principle – taking a set of things you know, such as the items in a room of your house, and linking them with things you would like to know, such as items on a shopping list. Then, as you mentally wander around the room you can pick up the items you wanted to remember as you go.
In mediaeval Europe these systems became ever more elaborate, and as well as linking things you wanted to know with things you wanted to remember, more and more emphasis got placed on the nature of those links. Linking things became, in itself, part of the imaginative process, in the same way we think of it today. One of the earliest pioneers of this was Ramon Lull, whose system of “memory wheels” could create vast numbers of connections between things.
However, these techniques were controversial. Many who practised them were considered heretics, practitioners of the dark arts of alchemy and guardians of occult secrets. One of the most famous practitioners of these mind-expanding techniques was Giordano Bruno, who came to Oxford in 1583 teaching people his version of Lull’s imaginative techniques.
By this time Puritan ideas had begun to take hold in England, and Bruno’s audiences were shocked. Instead of images, they followed the rather dour scholar Peter Ramus, who devised a system of memorising things using only words, by dividing the world up into more and more subcategories so you literally knew where everything fitted. This emphasis on using only words arose because the Puritans were deeply suspicious of the imagination, because they believed that it had the power to make the things you pictured in your mind real. As they had done in the ancient world, and as they do today, the memory artists of the 16th century, like Bruno, used things they knew as anchors for their mental gymnastics. Unfortunately, one of the things they knew best was the set of astrological charts. Combine this with the Puritan belief that images could make things real, and you can see why these memorists were accused of summoning demons! Indeed, 20 years after visiting Oxford, Bruno was burned at the stake!
Some 500 years later, neuroimaging research on the brains of creative artists and memory athletes suggests that a lot of what those mediaeval heretics were doing was right on target. Specifically, studies have thrown up three ways in which brains can be better primed for creativity.
- Research on memory athletes has shown that those who use visual memorisation techniques form more connections in their associative cortex areas. Using pictures works. And linking things works. And the more and varied those images are the better. They are the building blocks from which you will grow your creative imaginings.
- Research on artists who improvise a lot, like jazz musicians, shows that the key to their ability to do this, to open their minds up, is that the frontal areas of their brains, the bits that act as our self-censors and judges, shut down temporarily. In other words, if you want to be creative, learn to be OK with making a fool of yourself. Just chill.
- If the first two are things that can be trained over time, this is something that we can learn to do while we are in the process of being creative. It seems that it matters what we do in the gaps between bursts of creativity. Specifically, we do best when we engage in short periods of mindless but guided activity, like going for a walk on the pavement and avoiding the cracks, or finding the edge pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Just enough to keep the conscious brain quiet. Not so much to occupy the whole brain.
We now know Ramus and his followers were both wrong and right. They were wrong that lists and subcategories were the way to go. For creativity in particular that’s disastrous – knowing the place of everything makes it almost impossible to find new places for things, which is what creativity is all about. But they were right about the power of the imagination. Only, instead of that making it something to be frightened of, we can now see it as something to be nurtured, to get excited about. And with modern neuroimaging showing us just why the likes of Lull and Bruno were right about the development of the imagination, now is an incredibly exciting time to learn more about them, and use their principles to develop our own creativity. Mycelium has been designed to do just that – to take the associative and categorising principles of mediaeval pioneers (and, and let’s face it, it’s hard to resist, to incorporate some of the aesthetic feel of those early works), to apply the principles unlocked by modern research, and combine them so that you can unlock your brain’s remarkable creative potential
Mycelium consists of two decks of cards. One deck contains 10 “relation” cards and the other contains 50 “object” cards, five cards each from the following ten categories:
- Animal world
- History of ideas
- Human endeavour
- Human world
- Physical world
- Plant world
- Science and technology
The make-up of the pack has been designed specifically to encourage all of the preconditions for creativity, and to mirror the successful techniques of artists like Giordano Bruno. By drawing from a wide range of fields, and using visually stimulating but non-specific images as much as possible (for example, not choosing to represent a “fish” with a picture that’s clearly a “salmon” as that would restrict rather than help associations), many different parts of our knowledge base are used and connected in effective ways.
Mycelium can be used effectively by one person or as a game between as many people as you wish. Indeed, if you want to keep score, the more people you have the better – and the scoring of each round may just spark as much creative activity as playing the game itself – that is as much part of the game’s design as anything else.
The goal of the game is simple – you are set challenges which ask you to combine or otherwise relate two different objects in as many and as varied ways as you can. If you are scoring, then points will be awarded for originality of ideas, number of ideas, and detail of ideas.
At the start of each round, shuffle both decks, and turn over
- One card from the relations deck. You may, say, get. “You have survived the zombie apocalypse. Would you rather be left with … or …? Explain your answer.
- Two cards from the object deck. You may draw “a set square” and “a hydrothermal vent”
Your question for the round is now set – “You have survived the zombie apocalypse. Would you rather be left with a set square or a hydrothermal vent? Explain your answer.”
You have a set amount of time to find as many answers as you can, that are as original as possible, and as thoroughly thought out and explained as possible. Hyo can write them, type them, morse code them, record them however you wish. You can make this time as long or as short as you like, but I recommend if you are playing as a group 15 minutes.
At the end of the round, if you are playing competitively, calculate your score using the method outlined in the scoring section.
Finally, before commencing the next round rearrange the cards in the objects deck into their categories. The cards of each category have their text outlined in a different colour, so you can just sort by colour. This sounds unnecessary and a bit strange, but it’s a key part of the process if you are using Mycelium as a tool to make you more creative. Research has shown that how you use the time in between periods of sustained creative effort matters. Do something too complex and you never get to recover. Do nothing and your brain gets slack. But carry out a task that occupies you but in a fairly mindless way and your brain will be subconsciously preparing itself to be creative and you will improve for the next round. Sorting the cards in this way is exactly this kind of task.
A key part of scoring is that it will involve some element of negotiation and agreement (on what constitutes “the same idea” for example, and on how well elaborated an idea is). This is part of the game, and part of the process of sparking creativity by thinking about other people’s ideas as well as your own. Don’t skimp on the discussions this part may generate – it is more important that each others’ ideas get you thinking than that you “win”.
“Scoring” creativity sounds really odd, and a really “uncreative” thing to do but it’s actually a surprisingly reliable measure. There are three elements to scoring:
- Originality – coming up with ideas that no one else thinks of
- Prolificness – coming up with lots of ideas
- Elaboration – coming up with ideas that are really well thought through and might actually work
Each idea you generate (each “answer”) will score you marks (the prolific part). Each answer can score between 1 and 25 points, achieving a mark of 1-5 for originality and 1-5 for elaboration and the scores being multiplied.
Originality is scored in the following way. For however many people are playing, if all of you come up with an idea, then you score 1 point. If no one else comes up with an idea you score a point for every person playing, up to a maximum of 5. If some people share the same idea, you will score accordingly (for 2 out of 3 people, score 2 points. For 2 out of 5 or 6 people, score 4 points, and so on).
Elaboration is scored according to how well you have developed your idea, and may also be scored according to relevance. For example, a question might ask what you get if you cross a fish with a skyscraper. You may answer “78 blue oil tankers” if you wish, and that would probably be original, but it would be neither relevant nor thought through. Even a simple “a fish scraper” or similar would be relevant but completely unelaborated. I would score both as 1. On the other hand, you may have created a whole world in wish half fish half skyscrapers exist and the ways they relate to each other and what’s around them – that kind of following through is what makes for elaboration. This is where scoring works best when it is agreed upon by both or all parties – it gets you thinking about what makes a really well-elaborated idea.
The fact that originality is multiplied by elaboration but that the marks for all your ideas are added together rather than multiplied encourages you to put your energies into really developing a few highly original ideas.