Need Breakthrough Creativity? Try Actually Breaking Something

Breakthrough Creativity

Literal actions based on creative metaphors have been found to have actual effects on resulting creativity. That’s a mouthful, so let me clarify…

It turns out you can be better at “thinking outside the box” by literally stepping outside of a physical box.

In experiments exploring how our minds influence our mental and creative outputs, researchers are learning more about embodied cognition. This is the theory that human mental processes are shaped largely by concrete bodily experiences.

For instance, asking someone to step into a cardboard box, then step out again, causes a similar “outside the box” increase in creativity—the action somehow causes our mental processes to become more free and innovative. Participants “embodied the metaphor,” or acted it out, and then performed creative tasks. Those who physically performed the action of stepping in and out of a box first were measurably more creative at completing a task than people who were not asked to first step in and out of a box.

A similar study based on “breaking the rules” found that study participants who literally had to break down a wall in a virtual reality environment were able to think more divergently (generate more, and more atypical ideas to complete assigned tasks) than people who were not told to break down the walls. Ideas were more original and more flexible among the “breakthrough” group.

Changing Your Creative Team’s Minds

Have you seen alpine skiers doing a mental exercise called visualization before they leave the start gate? Repeatedly running through the event mentally prior to setting foot on the playing field helps athletes in many sports prepare their minds as much as they have prepared their bodies to compete to the best of their abilities. Athletes now go so far as to imagine smells, sounds and the overall feeling of that perfect event, including even the bus ride to the event and the post-race press conference.

“The more an athlete can imagine the entire package, the better it’s going to be,” sports psychologist Nicole Detling told the New York Times.

For creative thinking, embodied cognition builds on visualization practice. It is fascinating to realize that abstract concepts can, when made physical, have the very effect that they describe. As the virtual reality rule-breaking experiment indicates, you don’t even have to physically perform the mind-freeing metaphor—you can imagine it, and get the same creativity-boosting result. 

Think about using this psychological insight as a brainstorming warm-up. Give your group boxes to sit next to their notepads before starting your session, and imagine stepping in and out of that box. Tests have shown even this simple realization of the metaphor improved outside-the-box thinking. Or, give everyone a bag of something crunchy, like saltine crackers or cereal, and ask them to smash the contents. See if you get a higher level of “break-through” creative ideas.

Here are some other mind-freeing metaphors that can be expressed literally to boost or alter creative thinking.

See both sides of a problem.Offer people a two-sided card showing opposing images (black/white, fire/water, tortoise/hare, day/night, up/down, etc.)

On the one hand… on the other hand.The simple act of raising one hand, then raising the other hand, can increase output of alternative ideas, or improve seeing an idea from a different perspective.

Put two and two together.Literally representing this metaphor can help people with convergent thinking, or bringing together logic, knowledge and skills to work on problem-solving. One way of representing this metaphor is to give people two piles of cards to be sorted into one stack.

Walk around, not in a square.Asking people to wander around randomly can encourage more unconventional thinking. In fact, just watching someone else wandering randomly can stir the brain to “think different.”

Get a different perspective/point of view.Physically changing from sitting to standing, or from standing to lying down, can help people shift their thinking and come at a problem from a new angle.

Expand your mind.Mind-body dissonance can open you up to consider ideas you might otherwise dismiss, or connect ideas you wouldn’t have associated. Have people think sad thoughts while smiling, or happy thoughts while frowning.  

Our minds are amazing. Finding new ways to use our mental gifts seems a natural fit for our creative teams. What creative methods do you use to open minds and spur creative thinking?

See more content about brainstorming and creativity under our Popular Topics. 


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