Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thinking to think

Ya gotta love functional fixedness. Actually, it is probably the single biggest obstacle to making new discoveries and solving problems. People joke about women who use a butter knife as a screw driver, but this is actually a fine example of moving away from having to use an object for its intended purpose.

One of the best ways to exercise your brain is to think of new ways to use things that have a stated purpose, or to move away from the same old stale practices. One of my earliest memories of cognitive flexibility had to do with paper. My father was an artist. He received a black piece of paper from a commercial printer as a type of advertisement. The title of the black paper was, "Only God can see black ants, on a black rock on a moonless, cloudy night." Just that one stimulus elicited my father's response, which was to send them a white piece of paper with the title, "Only God can see albino elephants eating marshmallows in a blinding snow storm." Years later, I saw an article in the "Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis" that consisted of a totally blank page that was entitled, "A case of unsuccessful treatment of writer's block." This was followed by a rather clever reviewer's comment, "I can see nothing wrong with this article."

Sometimes having a disorder causes people to move away from functional fixedness. This is particularly true for alcoholics. Most people think of flavor extracts as a way to bake or cook. Not many of these tiny bottles have more than four ounces in them. Alcoholics who have limited access to "real liquor" find flavor extracts quite handy. Better yet, were the alcoholics who were discussed in an old issue of the "Journal of the American Psychological Association." These folks were in a facility with extremely tight controls over alcohol and the means to distill their own alcoholic beverages (as happens in prisons). They succeeded in becoming intoxicated by the unlikely means of super hydration. They took up residence in the facility bathrooms at night so that they could consume enough water to lower their blood ph levels enough for acid intoxication (a dangerous activity).

Let's get back to those flavor extracts. They actually smell quite good. Does anyone think that vanilla extract would make a fine perfume or cologne? How about cherry flavor extract? Why not mix cherry extract and vanilla extract to create Cherry Vanilla? That type of excursion away from functional fixedness might cause a significant other to exclaim, "You smell absolutely delicious!"

How functional fixed is it to think that the only way to assess a child's progress in the schools is with tests?

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