How flipping elements of a flipped idea results in new ideas

Creative problems are a lot like strangers.

You see a lot of them every day, their faces looking a lot alike but not quite the same. There are unique traits about each one individually, but at the center they’re fundamentally the same.

Because the brain is so great at association, any time we see a stranger with a face we instantly recognize their face. We know that they have two eyes and each eye is a color, we know they have eyebrows to display emotion, we know that they have a mouth to vocalize things, and we also know that if we were to turn that person upside down they’d still have the same eyes, eyebrows, and mouth.

A surprising thing happens, however, when we turn a face upside down and then change one or two subtle elements. The affect is known as the Thatcher effect, and it’s pretty fun to play with people you know.

Essentially what happens is an image of a person is flipped upside down, then one or two elements of the face are flipped again. This is a fun game to play on friends if you have a copy of Photoshop or other image editing software handy.

If you show a person the flipped image they won’t readily be able to tell you what’s wrong with it, despite glaring issues like eyebrows being beneath the eyes or lips flipped upside down.

That’s because our brains are optimized to recognize faces in certain patterns. We’ve seen faces so many times in our lives that faces just make sense to us, even if we see them upside down.

However, if we see a face upside down by one or two elements have been changed, the brain has a hard time identifying what’s gone wrong.

The same could be said for creative problems (or your search for creative ideas). If you’re an artist you’ve likely seen art most of your life (or at least most of your career). If you’re a musician you’ve heard music and notes all your life. For designers there’s design literally all around us. For writers there’s so many books that it’s impossible to put a number to just how many are out there.

So when we, as creatives, encounter a new problem or want to tackle a new task, it’s difficult to break away from what we’ve seen all of our lives. We can’t shake the image of a normal face, even if we turn it upside down.

So what do we do? Implement the Thatcher effect: change one or two things about what you’re doing, then flip the whole thing.

As an example: if you’re writing a novel, try writing each page backwards, but only do so on pages for certain chapters. Another example: if you’re an artist try painting physically upside-down, but use a mirror to paint upright as you do.

How can you flip elements of your work, on-top of flipping the ideas as a whole?