Monday, June 23, 2008

Out of the Box Thinking

There's a great test we like to give students when we're testing them - it's the Cookie Thief picture from the Boston Aphasia battery. When you show this picture to adults and ask them to describe it, the usual response is a dry recitation of what people, objects, and events are being seen in the picture.

But in many kids (often creative ones, young engineers, artists, or gifted storytellers), we get the most insightful, charming, and sometimes downright devious responses.

Typical adult answer: "I see a family. The boy's going to fall off a stool. The sink is overflowing."

Sample Creative kid answer: "Water's flowing out of the sink because the kids plugged it up with vegetables they didn't want to eat for dinner. While Mom is distracted, the kids steal the cookies. Johnny's going to fall and hit his head on the countertop. Suzy is laughing. They're going to be grounded forever!"

What is going on here? A lot of things from the brain's point-of-view- visual inference and causal reasoning (what's going to happen next), theory of mind, empathy, and social reasoning, analogy from personal experience, story generation, emotional memory retrieval - and much more. And it's one example of out-of-the-box thinking, and you can bet it would be valuable for just about any type of high level creative work, whether it's solving a complex social, mechanical, or biomedical engineering problem, performing a thought experiment about the limits of quantum mechanics, writing a novel, or designing a new product line.

Why is it that kids seems so much better at out-of-the-box thinking compared to adults? One reason may be that common expectations of becoming adults include become more organized, being able to plan and anticipate more events, and become more consistent in our behaviors. From the perspective of the brain, one would expect categorization tasks to be much more efficient in adults compared to children. But that may just be another way of saying that boxes are more common in adults.

How to nurture out-of-the-box thinking is a topic for another day, but for parents, to be aware of its importance is huge part of the answer. In a hurry to master the basics and high-level skills as well as acquire knowledge, we may lose sight of the importance of seeing beyond the box if we're not careful.

Minds, Persons, and Space fmri pdf
Fluid Reasoning in Children and Adults pdf
Emotional Personal Memory fmri pdf
Creative Story Generation fMRI pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Humor and the Brain
Brain Break: Cut the Knot, Interactive Math Miscellany and Puzzles

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