We’ve all heard the advice, “Think outside the box,” but now, thanks to a team of researchers, the cliché takes on a whole new, literal meaning. In a Times op-ed piece, three scholars of management and organizations—two from the University of Michigan, one from New York University (NYU)—reveal their compelling new findings about creativity. The writers indicate a direct correlation between people’s physical experiences and their ability to come up with fresh ideas and solutions.
In one study, the team gave 102 NYU undergraduates an assignment calling for innovative thinking: “to generate a word (‘tape,’ for example) that related to each of three presented word clues (‘measure,’ ‘worm,’ and ‘video’).” Some of the test subjects had to sit inside a 125-cubic-foot box built of plastic pipe and cardboard, while the others worked, yes, outside the box. Fascinatingly, the latter group thought up “over 20 percent more creative solutions.”
Another study focused on 104 Singapore Management University students. The researchers asked them to look at pictures of Lego objects, and imagine novel ways in which the objects could be used. The students had to think while walking—some freely, others around a rectangular path marked out with duct tape. As in the first experiment, the group with greater flexibility produced “over 25 percent more original ideas.” The article explains how this was measured.
These examples of what psychologists call “embodied cognition” blur the mind-body distinction long present in Western thought. “Bodily experiences can help create new knowledge,” the authors say, so “we may have to avoid working in cubicles” if our jobs demand creativity. But not completely, for “to think outside the box, you first need a box.” Which is why Eric Liu and I, in the book Imagination First, title one of our imagination practices, “Think Inside the Box.” The balance between limitations and liberation is critical to the creative equation.
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