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Published February 10, 2013

Outside the Box — a Literal Interpretation of How Creativity is Born

Try to remember a time when you solved a problem. Maybe it was at work, at home, on the road, or on top of the Empire State building.

Give yourself a minute to think about the solution you came up with. Were you at any point sitting next to a box? If you were, chances are your solution was more original.

In May of 2012, the Journal of Psychological Science published a series of studies based on metaphors and their influences on creativity, run by Angela K. Leung and her colleagues across five Universities. Some of the studies on generating ideas included walking a square path vs. walking freely, using one hand to gesture while speaking and then the other, but of special note was their literal interpretation of “thinking outside the box.”

Using cardboard and PVC pipe, the scientists built a 5 by 5 foot box and had people sit in it, next to it, or in another room (as their control). Participants filled out a Remote Associates Test, which judged their creativity based on different word associations. Interestingly, the data they gathered suggested that literally thinking outside the box produced more original responses.

What Leung and her colleagues showed was that the very idea of being outside a box was enough to spur more creativity.

That has some interesting implications if you were to stretch the metaphor a bit. What does your brain see as a box? We live in very contained societies, as we sleep and drink coffee in a big box called a house and drive to a bigger box called work using a box on wheels called a car. Our media is delivered to us in a variety of boxes called computers, televisions, and books. Pantries and cabinets across the world are lined with food in boxes, some of which are box shaped themselves. Office buildings and skyscrapers are piles of boxes stacked on top of one another, split into even smaller boxes called offices and cubicles. Clearly, what our brains call a “box” is very broad, so long as it is rigid and confining.

Perhaps the combination of rigidity and confinement take our monkey brains back to a time when being caught between a rock and a hard place could have been deadly, rather than metaphorical. Since then we have recognized the protective qualities of a box, but psychologically it still makes us feel better to be outside of one than in one. It may even be possible to go further and say that our creativity could be the result of seeing situations where we might be trapped and learning from it, and boxes remind us of this entrapment.

Being outside of a box settles your mind into thinking differently.

In the case of the experiment, it meant more original word associations. In the case of work, sitting in the company break room next to the employee refrigerator might help you generate more profitable ideas. In the case of relaxing at home, having a box of crackers on your coffee table could inspire you to write better than you would otherwise. In any case, being adjacent to what our brains define as a “box” does have some sort of effect on our psychology.

So the next time you have a problem to solve, writer’s block to overcome, or some relationship issue to work out, relax. Go home, sit on the couch, turn on the TV, munch on a box of crackers, and think. You might be surprised what you come up with.

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  • Greg Trombley


  • I'm an RDU-based novelist and passionate champion of scientific progression. Nature and science live side-by-side in my heart. I clean dinosaur bones in my spare time, and love reading about local history. All my articles.

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