September 29, 2016

Cognitive fixation: the mind’s obstacle to seeing what is right in front of us

Photo Credit: Rita Willaert

 

By Joe Perez

Here’s an item in the news today plus a short exercise.

In “Why We Can’t See What’s Right in Front of Us,” Tony McCaffrey of the Harvard Business Review gives us an explanation for why we can’t see the obvious:

The most famous cognitive obstacle to innovation is functional fixedness — an idea first articulated in the 1930s by Karl Duncker — in which people tend to fixate on the common use of an object. For example, the people on the Titanic overlooked the possibility that the iceberg could have been their lifeboat. Newspapers from the time estimated the size of the iceberg to be between 50-100 feet high and 200-400 feet long. Titanic was navigable for awhile and could have pulled aside the iceberg. Many people could have climbed aboard it to find flat places to stay out of the water for the four hours before help arrived. Fixated on the fact that icebergs sink ships, people overlooked the size and shape of the iceberg (plus the fact that it would not sink).

More mundane examples: in a pinch, people have trouble seeing that a plastic lawn chair could be used as a paddle (turn it over, grab two legs, and start rowing) or that a candle wick could be used to tie things together (scrape the wax away to free the string).

The problem is we tend to just see an object’s use, not the object itself. When we see a common object, the motor cortex of our brain activates in anticipation of using the object in the common way. Part of the meaning of an object is getting ready to use it. If a type of feature is not important for its common use, then we are not cognizant of it. The result: our brain’s incredible inertia to move toward the common. Efficient for everyday life, this automatic neural response is the enemy of innovation.

Read the whole thing.

Creativity doesn’t just happen. It works like a muscle that can be trained, stretching the brain’s inertia towards ordinary uses to genuine creativity. As a practice, right now, look at an object in front of you… and contemplate new uses for it.

Hey, I think I’ve just found a new plaything for my cats!

 

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