April 3, 2009

Get Out of Your Rut with Brain Stew

“Ew, brain stew!” Sounds like something a mischievous third-grader would say. “Ew, brain stew! None for me – how ’bout for you?” When I think of a stew, I think of the rich pot of deliciousness my wife sometimes cooks up.

She’s creative about it. As with any good stew, she uses what’s on hand. You never know what she’ll throw in there, but you know it will always be good eats.

What makes a stew so wholesome is the use of diverse ingredients. They’re combined in fairly arbitrary amounts, then cooked for a few hours over low heat. A hearty stew makes for a low-maintenance meal, too; once you’ve done the prep work, the crock-pot or oven does the rest.

Brain stew, then, is a wholesome mind-treat comprised of diverse elements. The more diverse the better — even if some of the “ingredients” don’t seem to mesh well at first blush.

When I concoct a brain stew, I might use a snippet from New Scientist magazine, a section of the Gospel of Thomas, and an article from Rolling Stone; some music from Klaus Schulze, The Mars Volta, Bjork, and The Beatles; some visual goodies from a Marx Brother movie, a video podcast, and a documentary on watchmaking; and a dash of walking, stretching, and other exercise for good measure.

And then I sit down with pen and paper to watch what happens next.

The great thing about making brain stew is there’s no wrong way to do it. Whatever the mix, the results always confuse, astonish, and delight me.

Stir up a batch of brain stew for yourself. It needn’t be complex or time-consuming. Give your mind to the process, open it to many inputs, and see what pops out of your mental crockpot.


Here are a few questions to play with after you’ve had a little brain stew. You can also make up your own questions from projects you’re working on now.

  • What sort of house would you design for a pear?
  • What your life be like if you were a cartoon?
  • What would your life be like if you could express yourself using only your lip movements (no sound, please)?
  • What sort of music would a tennis ball write?

The creative process is mysterious, stimulated in ways that are reliable but not always understood. Don’t take these questions too seriously. Use them to stretch your mind in different directions!

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