The cognitive bias that hurts creativity

“Think outside the box” – you’ve probably heard it so many times that it’s lost all meaning. It’s not a difficult concept: it involves approaching problems with nonconventional solutions and lateral thinking. Most English speaking adults could give you a definition along those lines (which probably explains why it’s often co-opted as a marketing slogan). “Thinking outside the box” is the clich√© solution to a less well-known problem: a cognitive bias called Functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness separates copycats from innovators. It explains our tendency to use objects the way they’re traditionally used. It’s not always a bad thing. Most of our daily ‘problems’ have well-established solutions: we use forks to eat with, beds to sleep in, toothbrushes to clean our teeth – you get the idea. This isn’t to say there’s no room for innovation in our morning routines – it’s just not where most people’s creative energy is focused, which is understandable. Functional fixedness may be fine when doing chores, but it takes its toll when we’re faced with creative tasks and complex problem solving.

If you’ve ever considered the concept of childlike creativity, it’s the antithesis of functional fixedness – according to a study, the cognitive bias doesn’t even appear in children until around the age of 6-7 years old. At age 7, children understand the idea that specific objects are associated with specific functions, which is undeniably an important part of development.

Innovators who are able to work past functional fixedness often reap big rewards. The idea of using structures, objects, and even concepts in nontraditional ways is a hallmark of creativity. Before Wikipedia, encyclopedias functioned solely as references, now they also function as democratic platforms to share knowledge. Before github, the primary function of version control was for coordinating software development within teams – now it’s also at the heart of global software distribution and open source collaboration. Before the iPhone, mobile phones primarily functioned as tools for interpersonal communication, now they’re one of the most popular means of consuming software.

By taking functional fixedness into account during the creative and problem solving processes, it’s possible to systematically overcome it. Taking a deconstructionist approach is one of the more effective methods. By breaking down structures to their core components, form can be decoupled from function. When a structural element is decoupled from its original function, it frees it up to serve another purpose. This is evident in the “Candle Problem“, a popular test to demonstrate functional fixedness in children: only by decoupling the box from its original function (as a container for the thumbtacks) does it become available to be used as part of the solution.

Functional fixedness is something everyone lives with. With practice, it’s possible to identify our own fixedness and make the conscious decision of whether it’s better to innovate or use a conventional solution for a given task.

Micro Air Vehicles could be huge (figuratively)

In the not-so-distant future, large commercial UAVs may perform tasks ranging from package delivery to taxi service – but the other end of the spectrum looks just as promising. In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Caltech famously titled: “there’s plenty of room at the bottom” – he was speaking about nanotechnology, but the general sentiment could also ring true in the world of UAVs.

MAVs, or Micro Aerial Vehicles, are exactly what they sound like: they’re tiny flying machines. It’s a bit of a misnomer, because they’re better measured in millimeters than micrometers – but we get the idea.

MAVs are perfectly suited for indoor environments: they’re quiet, lightweight and won’t poke an eye out. Indoor environments also simplify the placement of wireless changing stations, which will likely be needed because of the tiny batteries used by these flying machines. Being localized to indoor environments also makes MAVs well-suited as IoT peripherals.

Micro aerial vehicles have applications in both the consumer and business spaces. They could be part of home security systems, they could monitor air quality, noise pollution and more. MAVs could follow you around and help create a journal of your life. For retailers, they could help track inventory and customer behavior while reducing liability by spotting hazards like spills and puddles.

Aside from the obvious consumer applications, there’s also interest in MAVs from military and law enforcement. The idea of using tiny robots for surveillance isn’t science fiction anymore. Much of the current research is funded by military organizations like DARPA.

MAVs are significantly cheaper to manufacture than standard UAVs, they’re safer, and there’s already some impressively small examples in development today. The tiny machines can be separated into two broad categories: the ornithopters and the multicopters. Micro quadcopters can be purchased for under $50 (they’re essentially just toys), but with a footprint of less than a square inch, it’s hard not to marvel at them (it’s almost reminiscent of how some early cultures used wheels in toys before using them in wagons). Micro ornithopters are less well known, but they mimic the mechanics of bird and insect flight (this subsclass of ornithopters is called entomopters). The tiny form factor allows these machines to make use of tech such as electrostatic adhesion for perching and takeoff (think of a fly-on-the wall scenario). While less well-known, the bulk of advanced research seems to be in the area of micro ornithopters.

There’s another interesting avenue of research: creating cyborg insects. Insects have been masters of flight for hundreds of millions of years. There are already DIY kits available that allow you to turn a cockroach into an RC cyborg ¬†– and scientists are already able to control the flight of a moth via implants . The smallest flying insects are orders of magnitude smaller than any practical MAV, so engineers can keep looking to them for design inspiration.

It’s easy to imagine a future where the sky is filled with UAVs, but it’s a bit harder to predict exactly how MAVs might change the landscape. MAVs have often been relegated to research projects, but the time for commercialization may be near.

Slow Reading: the antithesis of speed reading

You’ve heard of speed reading – there’s a whole mini-industry of books and apps built around it. Increasing your reading speed has obvious benefits, but what happens when you slow it down?

You probably haven’t heard of slow reading. It’s related to the concept of a ‘close reading’ – a technique used in critical analysis where the reader pays close attention to details and sentence structure. With slow reading, the reader consciously slows their reading speed down. Slow reading can help you understand the piece better – and it can help you enjoy it more.

By default, most people read as quickly as they’re comfortable with – this happens without any conscious effort. To start slow reading, you read as slowly as you’re comfortable with – it should feel comfortable, not labored. The goal is to achieve an enjoyable experience – slow reading should never be stressful.

Slow reading is part of the slow movement – which advocates for slowing down many activities in daily life. Instead of fast food, the slow movement embraces ‘slow food’ – instead of mass-produced goods, the slow movement prefers carefully crafted items which take more time to create. The slow movement gained attention in the beginning of the 21st century as a reaction to our “always-on” society.

Slow reading isn’t always appropriate, but if you feel like you don’t enjoy reading as much as you once did, you might want to pick up a book and give it a try. Lots of things in life are a race, but reading doesn’t always have to be one of them.