In our lives we tend to accumulate more things than we need at any given moment, so we create very real containers for these things. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Our brains work in the same way.
We store bowls and plates in distinct cupboards, and silverware or “knickknacks” in separate places too. We put our clothes in specific places, some hanging in a closet and others in dresser drawers (others just lying about wherever it’s convenient). Our work or school supplies go in a certain place as well.
This all works to maximize not only our space, but our productivity. If we know we are going to be making a certain type of meal for dinner, we know exactly where to look for the ingredients and tools necessary to make it.
Our minds work in exactly same way: organizing ideas and experiences into “containers” of relationships that makes referring to them as-needed drastically easier.
By relying on mental structures that “compartmentalize” everything that comprises a thought, our minds are more capable of referencing information at a highly efficient rate. When asked to think of how an orange tastes, your brain knows to look for an answer by looking at the letters of the word, the word as a whole, then the ambiguous meaning of the word, followed by the feeling associated with eating an orange and finally the taste itself (as best as your mind can recall it).
This all happens in a fraction of a second, but research shows that it happens very much in this way for any thought.
Unfortunately, while this system of organizing our thoughts and experiences is efficient, it hinders our ability to think creatively. Rather than looking at what might be possible in any given moment, we are inclined to instead think of what fits into the little mental “box” we have formed around a concept, or experience, or memory.
This is what made the phrase “think outside the box” so wildly popular: it’s easy to think in a box-like framework, where everything has its place and you can reliably look in the appropriate box to get the information you need.
Sometimes we forget we are thinking with a box-mentality because it’s so effortless to do. It’s our natural, default way of going about our business.
But to think creatively is to acknowledge first that we have these mental boxes which our minds will be drawn to look in, then to try and work our way toward looking outside of them.
We do this by provoking more sporadic and strange thinking patterns. By questioning even the most mundane and obvious things, by trying to associate dissimilar things, by jumping around randomly – on paper, a canvas, or the room ” until something stands out.
Instead of looking at all of the relevant information about a problem, the “box” that surrounds it within our mind, we should instead try to relate the relevant information to something completely “outside the box.”
That’s how we not only uncover new ideas, but we make our mental boxes just a little bit bigger too.
Sometimes the best way to remind ourselves of this is to leave simple reminders in our space for thinking differently. A sticky note that prompts you to think of an opposite idea, or a poster that inspires you to “prove yourself wrong” can be helpful.
Of course, this is part of why I wrote The Creativity Challenge, it’s a book you can keep with you at any time and open to a random page to get a challenge for thinking outside the box.
Photo by Louish Pixel.