Five Metaphors That Actually Foster Creative Thinking
by Jeremy Dean
People often describe creative thinking in the form of metaphors. We talk about “thinking outside the box,” “putting two and two together,” and “seeing both sides of the problem.” But what if we could boost our creativity by taking these metaphors literally? We know our minds interact in all sorts of interesting ways with our bodies — what if we enacted these metaphors physically?
That’s the question Angela Leung and her colleagues examine in a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. Their findings from five studies demonstrate how a person can become more creative simply by changing their posture, establishing a link between creativity and what psychologists refer to as “embodied cognition.” Here’s how you can put their findings to use.
1. On one hand…on the other hand
Creative ideas are often arrived at by bringing together two apparently unrelated thoughts. When we can think about a problem in terms of two different sides, we are more likely to find a way to integrate them. This is encapsulated by the phrase “On the one hand…on the other hand…”
So, what if while trying to solve a problem you physically hold up one hand followed by the other? Might this send a signal to the unconscious to encourage it to consider the problem from more than one angle?
Leung and her colleagues found that test subjects who gestured with both hands came up with more novel ideas than those who gestured with just one hand.
2. Literally sit outside a box
“Thinking outside the box” is an awfully overused cliché. Nevertheless, it does capture the idea that in creativity you have to try and explore new areas.
In their research, Leung’s team had participants literally either sitting in boxes or sitting next to boxes while doing creativity tests. Remarkably, the researchers found that this simple manipulation worked. People who were literally sitting outside of a box came up with more ideas than those sitting in the box.
3. Wander around, but not in a square
If you don’t have a box handy, you might like to try just wandering around randomly, but whatever happens don’t walk in a square.
The researchers found that people came up with more ideas when they wandered around randomly than when they walked in a square (or didn’t walk at all).
4. Put two and two together
Not all creative thinking is about plucking amazing ideas out of the ether; sometimes we need to do the grunt work of logically fitting together ideas or objects we’ve already got in front of us. We’ve got to put two and two together and make sure the answer isn’t 17, metaphorically speaking. This is what psychologists call “convergent thinking,” and it’s where we bring our logic, knowledge and skills to bear on a problem.
A fourth study tested the idea that sorting piles of cards from two stacks into one would encourage convergent thinking.
It did. Participants who sorted the cards from two piles into one did better on a test of convergent thinking than those who just fiddled around with the cards in one pile.
5. Imagine it
Too lazy to get a box or wander around randomly? Then this last study is for you. Here, test participants watched a Second Life avatar that was either wandering freely or walking in a square.
According to the results, this form of “psychological embodiment” worked, as well. Test subjects watching their freely wandering avatar came up with more unconventional ideas for gifts than those watching the square-walking avatar. This result is particularly interesting because it shows that the postures aren’t as important as the state of mind that they encourage. The mere suggestion that someone might adopt these postures was enough to cue a more creative state of mind.
And lie down
This new research joins previous studies which have suggested that simple postures can affect creativity.
In one study, people lying down were better at solving anagrams (Lipnicki & Byrne, 2005); in another their concentration was boosted by wearing a white coat. Another used mind-body dissonance-e.g. thinking an unhappy thought while smiling-to boost creativity (How To Promote Visionary Thinking).
All of these studies show how the position of our bodies feeds back into the state of our minds — what the researchers call “a connection between concrete bodily experiences and creative cognition.” It also reveals how deeply metaphors for creativity are embedded in our consciousness.
This post by Jeremy Dean originally appeared on PsyBlog — a website (run entirely by Dean) dedicated to exploring the science of psychology by examining new, interesting, and exciting peer-reviewed psychology research.