Home » ABC Week 8: Don’t Let Your Brain Be Lazy- Overcoming Functional Fixedness

ABC Week 8: Don’t Let Your Brain Be Lazy- Overcoming Functional Fixedness

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

I talk a lot about how all of us once held the innate skills of creativity.

I know that can sound trite, and maybe even a little defeatist: as if you will never be able to live a creative life because you have the misfortune of being older than eight.

Well, that’s not true. You can and you will lead a creative life, we just have a hurdle to get around that eight year olds don’t:

It’s called Functional Fixedness.

Say what?

Simply put, our brains are super computers full of connections called synapses. Every time you do something new or put a new thought together, synapses fire together. Do that enough times, like when you are learning a new skill, and those synapses will wire together.

(So that explains why when you are trying to acquire a new habit or learn something new, the key really is in repetition. As they say: things that fire together, wire together!)

This explains how a kid sees pillows and blankets and thinks: spaceship, fort, boat…

…and a grown-up thinks: sleepytime.

The good-and somewhat bad- thing is your brain is crazy efficient.

In a way it’s kinda lazy, it wants to make life as easy on itself as possible. It’s gone to all the trouble of learning this new skill, and it doesn’t want to have to learn it again. So this particular way of looking at an object, a problem, or the world, gets kinda permanently fused in the brain.

Overall that’s awesome, right? Imagine if you had to learn how to tie your shoe every day? We couldn’t do anything without some level of fixedness.

But where it doesn’t serve us is in the realm of creativity.

Here’s an example of how that plays out:

In a now famous experiment, people were given a candle, a box of matches, and box of tacks. Their job was to figure out how to stick the candle to the wall so the wax didn’t drip on the floor.

Subjects couldn’t figure out an answer to the problem, though there was a simple solution of removing the tacks from the box, using the box as a shelf to hold the candle, and tacking the box to the wall.

People couldn’t move past the known use of the box to hold tacks. Their fixed concept of what the box was for got in the way of solving the problem.

So we can see how functional fixedness, though necessary for living efficiently in the world, can hinder us when it comes to creative thinking.

But overcoming functional fixedness requires intentionality.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Fortunately there’s an easy game to help you with this:

The Alternative Uses Test

This test was developed in 1967 by J.P. Guilford. Basically, you are given an object and two minutes to think of as many possible uses as you can. Here’s an example for a paperclip:

  • holds papers together
  • link many together to use as a string
  • unwind to open up the SIM card slot on your iPhone
  • earrings
  • bookmark
  • unwind and make into a circle to use as a ring

Note that in the test, you are also being measured in the following ways:

  • Fluency – how many uses you can come up with
  • Originality – how uncommon those uses are (“holding papers together”is more common, and thus less original, than using it to open the SIM card slot on your phone)
  • Flexibility – how many areas your answers cover ( ring and earrings are both accessories, so that only counts for one area)
  • Elaboration – level of detail in responses; “unwind and make into circle for a ring”  would be worth more than “bookmark”

Wanna give this a shot? Take a look at this list and give yourself two minutes for one, or a few of the items listed. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself looking at the world around you in a whole new way!

  • brick
  • candle
  • chair
  • spoon
  • pencil
  • tire
  • newspaper
  • button
  • paper towel
  • cup
  • metal clothes hanger

This week I would love to know:

Did you try this test? Did you find any new uses for everyday objects you can actually use in your life? Does this activity impact the way you look at the world? If so, how?


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