Get Out of the Box, Literally

I confess, I have come to loathe the phrase “think outside the box.” My quibble is not with the concept, but with the overuse of the metaphor. Now it turns out that the value of thinking outside the box is not just metaphorical – it is literal. New research described in the New York Times demonstrates that people confined inside a 125-cubic-foot box think less creatively than those allowed to sit outside the box. The researchers call this “embodied cognition” which means that our physical experience influences our thinking and our perception of reality. Thus, a person holding a cup of warm coffee is more likely to perceive a stranger as having a warm personality, a person holding something heavy is more likely to see things as important or serious (“weighty”), and a person allowed to pursue her own path thinks more creatively than someone who is required to follow a fixed rectangular path.

This body-mind connection suggests some physical ways to help you the next time you feel stuck or confined in your thinking. Each of the following actions produces a physical experience that just might facilitate more creative and innovative thought:

  • Take a hike, or walk. Better to walk freely than in a confined corridor.
  • Embody open, spacious thinking. Leave your office, cubicle, or desk and go to a more open space.
  • Take an agile, active stance. Even if you can’t leave your office, get up and move. Standing can help. (You can do this on a conference call.)
  • Assume an upright, strong posture. If you can’t get up, sit up straight, roll your shoulders back, and take a deep breath that fills your lungs. (You can do this in a meeting.)
  • Get away from your screen. Your computer monitor is also a box. Turn it off. Take a pad or white board and jot down your thoughts longhand.
  • Shed new light on the situation — go to the window, open the drapes or shades. Open the window if possible.

See if your mind takes a cue from your body. You may notice any opening in your thinking or shift in your perspective. Consider what other literal or metaphorical boxes you might be in. How might you move outside them?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get outside this particular box …..