Thinking outside the box is a popular phrase used to instigate creative endeavors, including decision making. What keeps this phrase from being cliché is the fact that the human brain uses so-called “boxes” to focus on the information that is most likely to be relevant and free us up to use our executive function to create, plan, design, and decide.
The brain does this so efficiently that we are completely unaware of it. In fact, this is a big part of what our “subconscious” brain is all about, handling the vast amount of information coming in from our senses, connecting this to memories (both episodic, e.g., “I remember falling off that skateboard”, and semantic, e.g. “I remember that water freezes at 32° Fahrenheit”), and, filtering only what is likely to be useful into our conscious thought process.
Notice that I’ve used likely twice while describing this process. That’s because our minds are amazing probability calculators. In fact, they work a lot like our smartphones in this way when the phone is trying to guess what word you are wanting to type next. The phone uses probabilities to determine what are the most likely words to follow the one(s) just typed and offers them up. Likewise, our brains process incoming information and determine what is most likely to be relevant given the current situation. In the case of phones, these probabilities come both from the things we’ve typed before, but also the things that everyone else in the world has typed. In the case of our brains, we rely on personal experience only. We’re all too familiar with the frustration of our phones insisting on auto-correcting a word because it is the most likely word to appear but is not the word we want to use. In the case of creative thinking, our mind is offering up ideas that are the most likely to be useful, but in this situation, we don’t know the answer ahead of time and we can only yearn for something different.
In the present moment, for me, my eyes are taking in a bunch of information on my computer screen, but I’m only “aware” of a small amount of it (I can’t tell what I’m not aware of because, well... because I’m not aware of it). The same goes for all of the senses and all of the things I have stored in my memory. My subconscious is working hard to filter me information it thinks is likely relevant to my current task, writing this blog. Thus, I’m tracking the overall purpose of why I blog, what this specific blog is about, how to type and use a mouse, various things I’ve learned about the topic I’m writing about etc. If I were to go off on a tangent and start discussing the fascinating things the brain does to process sounds in our environment, that would represent an error in my information filtering; my brain would be making a probabilistic mistake about the relevance of a memory I have about how sound is processed when that is not really what I’m trying to write about. Hence the term, thinking outside the box. The box is a metaphor for our default information processing, the filter our mind uses without any input from us. It works great most of the time, we couldn’t function without it, and yet, it can truly get in our way.
So how do we get out of the box? One of the most familiar cognitive techniques is to brainstorm, this can be done casually, but there are also formal guidelines that help increase the likelihood that you will come up with ideas that wouldn’t have emerged without this process (e.g., generating a stream of ideas without judgment or interference, considering ideas that you haven’t offered because you pre-determined they wouldn’t work, thinking of alternative uses of a common object like a brick to ‘prime’ creativity and then focus on the real issue). Brainstorming is one of the steps in the 7-step process in Problem Solving Therapy for depression, I’ve seen it used hundreds of times and it certainly can be helpful. Perhaps more to the point, I’ve seen so many examples of people being ‘stuck’ and then coming up with creative solutions given the support to be intentional in their brainstorming process.
Limiting our techniques to cognitive strategies leaves out a universe of opportunities to disrupt box-like thinking. Two overarching strategies come to mind, I’m sure there are more. As I described above, there is a whole lot going on at the subconscious level that is creating the box. Activities that free up that subconscious process to work on a problem without interaction (feedback) from our conscious process can foster creative thinking. There are plenty of famous stories of people making scientific discoveries in dreams. Even just putting an important topic aside and (let me sleep on that) can be helpful. Meditation is a very powerful tool for doing this as well. The challenge with the “percolate” strategy is that we don’t know what the subconscious will focus attention on, nor how relevant our conscious mind will find that information later when we’ve moved on to other tasks. Nonetheless I’m a big fan of letting things percolate and using mindfulness of the present moment to quiet down my executive functioning. For example, I often formulate an idea for a blog post and then set it aside and take my dog for a walk in the woods. During the walk I intentionally focus on the immediate experience of being in the woods and interrupt any thoughts that relate to my blog topic. When I return home, I sit down and start writing.
The other strategy I mentioned above is priming creativity with creative activities. In particular, lately, I’ve been emphasizing non-verbal, abstract creative activities, such as improvising music, drawing/painting, and creating shapes on a lathe. Music is a tricky one for me because I have formal training in music theory, and I can read music. While picking up my instrument and playing feels good and is creative, I think of this more of the percolate approach because so much thought will be involved in what I’m doing (e.g. linking notes on a page to notes on my instrument, translating a ii-V-I jazz chord progression to the current key, etc.). However, when I pick up a mouth harp or didgeridoo, there is none of that. I just create sounds and rhythms that are what they are, and I don’t worry about whether or not I’m doing it right.
What is even better for me, is painting. I have absolutely no training in painting and I cannot paint a picture of something that you would recognize to save my life. What I can do is dabble with colors and shapes and enjoy the sense of wonder that emerges when I do so. Recently I was on a retreat and we spent some time using paper and crayons to depict our impression of a group activity conducted the evening before. It’s been some time since I had a crayon in my hand and I was truly thrilled with how I felt after a mere 15 minutes of doodling – no geometric shapes or formal objects, just color. It wasn’t the picture I created that thrilled me, it was just the feeling I got when I set aside expectations and I set aside left-brain thinking and let my visual sense connect to my hands.
As adults, many of us have locked away the childlike joy that arises from the mere act of creating. We can scold society for encouraging this, but remember how the adult brain works, this is a part of creating the box that lets us function in day to day living without becoming completely exhausted before we even get out of bed. No need to be harsh about it; and yet, we do need to make effort to access what happens to how we feel (and thus how we behave and think) when we are creatively expressive using abstract methods.
So, take some time to express creatively. There are so many ways, singing random sounds, plunking on an instrument you don’t know how to play, busting out the crayons, dancing alone etc. Use the sense of embarrassment that arises as a signal to tap into your inner child. Think about that, when we are embarrassed in this way, for doing something silly, what do we do? We smile sheepishly, we try to “get small”, we become coy, all things that are childlike. Don’t stop there, use those feelings to allow yourself to experience what comes next – joy. Your mind will be primed to engage with all of your adult-world issues with a freshness and agility to spring right out of the box (and even if you don’t come up with a great decision at least you’ll be much more light-hearted)!
I have a video to go along with this blog post. It is just a short, ~15 minute, segment in which I play some sounds on my handpan. You certainly don’t need to watch it for this exercise, but if it helps to create the conditions to follow through, why not?