Where Do Ideas and Creativity Come From in the Brain? Part Three: Functional Fixedness and Our Ingenuity

If creativity comes from cross-talk between brain regions (as discussed in part two), then where might our ability to build computers and to think outside the box come from? Creativity is one thing, but what about ingenuity and feats of engineering? These are perhaps the more useful applications of our creativity, so how do they come about?

Well one explanation points to functional fixedness and our ability to overcome it. Let’s take a look at what precisely that means to finish our picture of creativity and out-the-box thinking…

What Is Functional Fixedness?

Functional fixedness is a ‘cognitive bias’ that most of us experience and which prevents us from thinking openly about a situation or a problem. It is a ‘mental’ bock which forces us to think of things only in a particular context. It means that when you see a wrench, you tend to think of it as a wrench and only a wrench – rather than as a weapon, as a ruler or as a useful prop.

Take for instance the classic test for functional fixedness. Here, participants are given a candle and a box of tacks and are tasked with attaching the candle to the wall in such a way that it won’t drip wax onto the floor or the wall itself. The participants will come up with all sorts of elaborate solutions using the candle or the tacks, but the solution lies in thinking literally outside the box. It requires them to stop thinking of the box as something merely there to hold the tacks, but rather as another potential tool. When the participants realise this, they can then use the tacks to attach the box to the wall and then stand the candle in said box.

It is only by thinking of the box not as a box, but as a tray, that the participants are able to come up with a working solution to the problem and it is this kind of thinking that has allowed us to develop as a species to our current point. Had we never thought of a stick as a way to hold fire or as a weapon (rather than just a branch) we would never have started using fire or tools. Had we never seen that we could sharpen stones rather than just walking on them, we would never have created spears and onwards. It is also what you might require later today when programming or when building a shed in order to achieve that Eureka moment that creates something great and new. You just need to stop thinking of things as having a particular role, and instead start looking at them in a unique way.

How to Unlock Your Engineering Genius

Engineering genius then requires the ability to overcome this functional fixedness, and this might once again be down to our ability to experience ‘cross-talk’ between brain regions. If we can look at an object using a different part of our brain than normal, then perhaps we can view it in a new context and come up with new ideas and creative solutions.

Fortunately though, you are not at the mercy of your mental wiring here and there are ways you can encourage your brain to overcome functional fixedness. One of these is simply to list the raw materials you have to work with, rather than the items. For instance then, rather than listing: candle, box of tacks, you would list: wax, wick, cardboard, tacks (metal). This way you might be able to come up with a whole range of solutions using those materials and it will ‘liberate’ your brain from thinking a certain way. Apply this technique next time you’re looking for a solution to a problem and you might just find that you surprise yourself. Then you can experience your own Eureka moment!

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