How to Build a Novelty Engine

Let’s say I gave you the assignment to move in a totally new way that you’ve never done before. Could you do it once? I suspect you could.

Could you come up with a new movement every day for a week? How about a year? How about 10 years?

A novelty engine is something that inputs just a few basic parts and rules and outputs novelty.[1] A novelty engine makes thinking up new possibilities an automatically generated process. Its a tool many highly creative people use, sometimes without even knowing they are doing so.

Novelty engines can be used for brainstorming possibilities, art projects, overcoming boredom, or just exercising your brain and making new neural connections. A novelty engine can also be used for biospiritual transformation (e.g. Andrey Lappa’s Dance of Shiva).

If you wanted to complete our hypothetical assignment, a novelty engine could help you to explore a new movement every day for an indefinite amount of time by providing thousands of possible new movements to explore. All you’d have to do is input a few basic positions and it would output a large number of unique movements.

Or if you’re not that into movement novelty, how about making new connections between various ideas in your field, creating radically new musical compositions, thinking of solutions to a difficult problem, or even new ways to communicate “I love you” to your partner. Anywhere you’d like to have more creativity, a novelty engine can help.

I’ve often seen novelty engines in action when people are highly creative in various fields, but I’ve never heard of anyone specifying exactly how to build your own. Building a novelty engine is a very powerful tool for creativity, and I highly recommend you build and use a few in your own life.

Examples of Novelty Engines

The following video is a brilliant example of novelty engines using twelve-tone music as an example. It’s 30 minutes long, but I recommend you watch the whole thing through to the end, because close to the end she draws some interesting diagrams that show a novelty engine in action. In this novelty engine, the videographer connects the twelve tones of the chromatic scale in various patterns to create novel, hauntingly odd, yet spectacularly creative versions of nursery rhymes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:

Andrey Lappa’s Dance of Shiva is a novelty engine for movement patterns, primarily with the arms. Practicing the Dance of Shiva feels like solving math problems with your body — afterwards one’s whole body buzzes with possibility. This is one of the first novelty engines that inspired me to think more generally about structured, mathematical approaches to creativity, and even the spiritual potential that comes from exploring options outside of our habit patterns.

Finger Fitness is a novelty engine for finger mobility and coordination. It stretches my brain to attempt these exercises, making me feel like a “motor moron”.[2] I recommend trying to follow along with the video to experience this brain stretching effect for yourself.

There are many more possibilities for novelty engines. For instance a comedian might take several comedy themes or joke structures as a starting point. A science fiction writer might combine common tropes found in scifi with emerging technologies to come up with novel, yet unexplored combinations. I hope you get the idea.

So what are the steps to generating novelty?

Step 1: Identify the Smallest Parts

These are the “atoms” of your novelty engine which you will use to generate new connections and possibilities. For instance…

In any area that you want more creativity, ask yourself what the basic positions or aspects or “atoms” of that area are. What are the constituent parts that make up the wholes?

With some novelty engines, it may be necessary to practice and sufficiently master the component parts by themselves before being able to proceed.

I recommend choosing no more than about 8-12 basic items. More than that can become unwieldy unless your novelty engine is a computer program or if you are only combining items at random because the number of possible combinations can quickly become astronomical.

Step 2: Explore All Combinations in Different Ways

Now you explore connections between two or more of the parts. Normally only a small subset of these connections are being explored by existing systems. So the novelty comes from exploring the combinations that haven’t been explored yet.

Here are several options for exploring connections between the component parts:

  • Make a chart of all possible combinations and explore systematically. For instance put all the parts at the top of a chart and again on the left side and then fill in all the combinations in the middle.
  • Make a visual shape of the possibilities (e.g. a hexagram) and draw shapes between the nodes. This is a method used in the above video on 12 tone music.
  • Explore randomly, for instance by making a deck of cards and picking at random to make connections, or by rolling a die or using a random number generator. Or explore various connections more spontaneously.
  • Explore connections between just two “atoms,” or make larger strings of three, four, etc.
  • Connect sets of two parts to other sets of two parts, sets of three to other sets of three, chunking together smaller parts into larger collections, like how letters form words which form sentences. For instance in Dance of Shiva, sets of two positions become one movement which then gets connected to other movements, reversed, done with a mirror image, etc. Then all the possibilities to explore are all the possible movement connections between two locations.

Step 3: Keep the Connections You Like, Discard Ones You Don’t

If you created a novelty engine in order to find something new to act upon, don’t explore 100% of the possibilities (choose to satisfice instead of maximize). You’ll be happier if you choose one of the first possibilities that is “good enough.” You can always come back and explore more possibilities later, but exploring hundreds or thousands of possibilities to find the “best” will usually result in wasted effort and increased dissatisfaction with what one chooses.

Some theoretical possibilities might end up physically impossible, or not as useful as others. For instance with movement exploration, some movement possibilities might lead to injury, or otherwise not be worth patterning into your nervous system. Some possibilities you might want to explore in greater depth, or share with people as something for others to learn to do.

Or instead of pruning/deciding, you can also just continue to explore possibilities for its own sake, for instance to make more neural connections, or for breaking free from patterned responses as in the Dance of Shiva.

An Example: Neck Mobility

I am often at the computer. As a result, I experience stiffness and pain in my neck and shoulders frequently. I know some neck mobility exercises from Scott Sonnon’s excellent Intu-Flow program, which I sometimes do. He has four “levels” of increasing complexity in his program to maintain interest and explore greater movement freedom and possibilities. Yet I found myself wanting to explore even more possibilities. Could I create a novelty engine that would bring about near infinite possibilities for gentle joint mobility movement exploration?

Note: the following is only for educational purposes. Chances are your neck is not very mobile and so trying all these possibilities too quickly or without extreme caution for most people will just jack up your neck worse than it already is. Proceed with caution. Or better yet, just do Scott Sonnon’s Intu-Flow, the first couple of levels of which is available free on YouTube. And then if you want more variety later after you’ve regained basic mobility, come back and try this.

From Sonnon’s Intu-Flow we can derive 11 basic positions of the neck:

  1. neutral (the zero position)
  2. slid forwards
  3. slid backwards
  4. tilted right
  5. tilted left
  6. twisted right
  7. twisted left
  8. chin up
  9. chin down (tucked)
  10. glided right
  11. glided left

Scott Sonnon identified these positions on his excellent Intu-Flow DVD set, which he teaches in this video clip:

In his Intu-Flow level one he introduces five basic movements for the neck built from these eleven fundamental neck positions (ten if we ignore the neutral position for the moment):

  • slide forward – slide back
  • tilt right – tilt left
  • twist right – twist left
  • chin up – chin down
  • glide right – glide left

Then in subsequent levels he introduces circles, figure 8’s, and clover leafs, all of which connect between four different positions.

But are these all the possibilities? Not even close. There are 90 possible movement combinations of the ten positions selecting just two positions to move between, not including the zero neutral position and if we consider 1 -> 2 and 2 -> 1 as different movements.[3]

For four positions in a sequence, there are 5040 possible combinations. So if you ever get bored with levels 1 through 4 of Intu-Flow (which are very well done by the way, and highly recommended for the gentle teaching style and the precise anatomical instruction), you have many more options to explore…and that’s just for the neck!

If we practice by going back and forth, forwards and backwards 3-5 times as Sonnon instructs, then we can consider 1 -> 2 to be equal to 2 -> 1, which leaves us with 55 possibilities as follows:

{neutral, slid forward}
{neutral, slid back}
{neutral, tilted right}
{neutral, tilted left}
{neutral, twisted right}
{neutral, twisted left}
{neutral, chin up}
{neutral, chin down}
{neutral, glided right}
{neutral, glided left}
{slid forward, slid back}
{slid forward, tilted right}
{slid forward, tilted left}
{slid forward, twisted right}
{slid forward, twisted left}
{slid forward, chin up}
{slid forward, chin down}
{slid forward, glided right}
{slid forward, glided left}
{slid back, tilted right}
{slid back, tilted left}
{slid back, twisted right}
{slid back, twisted left}
{slid back, chin up}
{slid back, chin down}
{slid back, glided right}
{slid back, glided left}
{tilted right, tilted left}
{tilted right, twisted right}
{tilted right, twisted left}
{tilted right, chin up}
{tilted right, chin down}
{tilted right, glided right}
{tilted right, glided left}
{tilted left, twisted right}
{tilted left, twisted left}
{tilted left, chin up}
{tilted left, chin down}
{tilted left, glided right}
{tilted left, glided left}
{twisted right, twisted left}
{twisted right, chin up}
{twisted right, chin down}
{twisted right, glided right}
{twisted right, glided left}
{twisted left, chin up}
{twisted left, chin down}
{twisted left, glided right}
{twisted left, glided left}
{chin up, chin down}
{chin up, glided right}
{chin up, glided left}
{chin down, glided right}
{chin down, glided left}
{glided right, glided left}

One can practice in that order, but that’s a bit boring. (I did it with 3-5 mindful repetitions of each and it took me 13 minutes 41 seconds.) So it’s also possible to create different ways of going through all the possibilities that are non-repeating and more interesting. But I find that only after exploring some of these connections do the more interesting possibilities become more obvious. Again, it’s not necessary to explore all the possibilities unless that’s your goal, but by generating all the combinations and permutations, novel combinations you might not have considered can be discovered.

I just tried out this full list and found that I especially like the tilt left/twist left (and tilt right/twist right) movements — they seem to have some possibility worth exploring, perhaps linking them up to other movements to make a longer sequence. A few hours after practicing all these possibilities, my neck is buzzing pleasantly.

For instance, here are some interesting sequences I just made up by exploring at random (don’t try these at home unless you’ve already done a lot of Intu-Flow and have a very mobile neck and are using lots of mindful awareness, and even then they might fundamentally not work for your body, or there might even exist good biomechanical reasons against anybody doing these particular movements):

  • Tilt left, twist left, chin up, twist right, tilt right…then reverse
  • Twist left, tilt right, twist right, tilt left, twist left, etc. … as an unusual kind of figure 8

By listing out the basic positions and then computing all the possible 2-place combinations (aka all the possible movements between those locations), I was able to discover several new ways of moving my neck that I’ve never done on purpose before in my life before today, as well as find some interesting new ways to practice neck mobility. With the 4-place combinations I have enough variety to last me several years of novel movements for just my neck alone. And then there are all the other major joints in my body. If I’m going to be practicing joint mobility exercises daily as Coach Sonnon recommends, why not make it more interesting?

Perhaps more profoundly, exploring a huge number of possibilities by using a novelty engine disrupts our fixed habit patterns. In the case of movement, perhaps there is no one right way to move. Yet we tend to move in a very limited set of possible movements throughout the day, and even when we exercise we tend to adopt a very restricted idea of what is possible. Exploring the full range of possibilities can bring about a sense of play and spontaneity. Ironically, by adopting different contraints which generate diverse possibilities we can get the sense of breaking free entirely from constraints.

In conclusion, a novelty engine can help you to discover new possibilities. While it does take a bit of time to set one up, and it is certainly not the only way to be creative, if you are seeking to make new connections or be more creative in an area of your life it is one powerful method for doing so…a method that some of the most creative people I’ve ever encountered seem to have stumbled upon.

Thoughts? Questions? Feedback? Email hello [at] duffmcduffee [dot] com.


1. I didn’t make up the term “novelty engine.” I think I picked it up from either my friend Joshua or a man named Jonathan Zap, and I believe one or both of them got it from Terrence McKenna. Joshua and Jonathan are both highly creative individuals, as was McKenna during his life.

2. The term “motor moron” comes from Coach Scott Sonnon. He encourages being a motor moron every day, practicing a novel movement that is difficult for you such that you can’t perform it in a coordinated way yet. That way you are always learning new things and expanding the range of movement you are capable of performing.

3. Here’s a tool for calculating combinations and permutations. This tool is especially useful for novelty engines because you can input text variables, not just numbers, and it will churn out a text file list.