What's a Box Anyway?

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Leave it to the Swedes. For B-Reel's latest CAT Scan installment, the company challenged its interns to come up with an intriguing post. Martin Bergen, also a student at Hyper Island, emerged the winner, conjuring drugs, Einstein and murder to help jump start your creativity.

Being creative is one of the most valued human traits today. Yet most people don't consider themselves to be particularly creative except for the people working in creative professions, like media and advertising, who tend to be overly confident in their creativeness. But the thing is, creativity isn't a trait or a natural talent or something you're born with it's just the ability to think slightly outside of the box.

What box? Is it just an overused cliche of a metaphor? I guess you could say that, but it could also be an effective model for understanding our mental processes when we try to be more creative. The origin of the phrase is said to relate to a puzzle where you are to connect nine dots by drawing four straight lines. The only way to solve it is to draw the lines outside of the square grid of the nine dots.

But the box metaphor also relates to our minds way of keeping us caged inside our own prejudices. It's a simple system of categorizing things, objects, emotions and people into understandable and simplified units. If I ask you to think of a car, bam! There's a car in your head. It's probably a very unspecific and generic car. Everyone get's almost the same picture. It's our preconceived image of a car. It's actually a heavily compressed image, with all details missing. If we think harder we can render out the details of the car, making it more specific, adding color and chrome and leather interior and all. The more we think of it the more we see. But the first image we saw was like a preview thumbnail, almost like an abstract symbol of a car. This process of simplifying and compressing all sensory inputs is a necessary action the mind takes to save up on memory usage. If we were to recollect every little detail in everything we see, hear, taste, smell or feel, we wouldn't be able to do anything else. Like a computer running out of RAM we would eventually crash or freeze and stop functioning. We would all have been like Rain Man, and we would probably have been eaten by hyenas the minute we fell down from the trees two million years ago.

The human body's primary goal is self preservation, to stay alive and functional. A crash is obviously not desirable, so this is were the mind creates the box, kind of like the steel framework that protects us in a car. By simplifying the world and being judgmental and biased and xenophobic we have managed to stay alive.

Now here's a cool thing: kids don't have boxes, they let their minds roam freely and seem to be able to come up with strange, fantastic and bizarre ideas all the time. The same goes for really crazy or doped up people and, perhaps not so surprisingly, for real geniuses. Or rather the geniuses, like Einstein and Beethoven probably had their boxes, but they also had the ability to reach out of them and create something that was never heard of.

Back to the kids. When the child's mind wanders off, unboxed and free, it eventually comes across some sort of obstacle. It could be anything really, just something the kid finds impossible. And the box is starting to take shape. The kid discovers that food is edible and that toys are not. It finds out that a car is not a train, a train is not a bicycle, 1 + 2 = 3 and so on. We call this learning. There is a right and wrong to everything. We equip our minds with simplified versions of all the things we come across. And all this learning, this experience is what make up the box. We keep our minds trapped inside our own simplified image of the world.

So thinking outside of the box seems like a violation of some sort of rule or law. The box is there to protect us from chaos and to save our RAM from being used up. Sure, the more we learn, the bigger the box gets, but face it, it's still a box, right? We're still trapped. Well, what options are there for us to escape the box? I guess we could use reason. Try to reason ourselves out of the box. Yeah, that sounds like the logical thing to do, right? I don't think so, since reason is what got us in this mess in the first place. Reason might be the archenemy of creativity. Reason is all about making assumptions from previously gained knowledge and experience.

So what else? We could always try to use brute force. Does that sound pleasant? Trying to force ourselves to be more creative just doesn't work, no matter what the boss is saying. We would end up totally frustrated and probably with thicker walls around us than what we started with. How about cheating? We could just copycat people who we think are really creative, and end up doing exactly what thousands of other copycats do. This is sometimes painfully obvious within the advertising industry. So cheating - not good.

Drugs then? It's been in use for as long as there's been people around and it has proven to be quite effective as a means to get out of our boxes. But it got two major drawbacks. Well first of all, it's often illegal, which tend to complicate the use, and secondly the mind often gets sedated, numbed or just to dizzy to function properly. Also we get less critical when intoxicated. We end up with useless gibberish that sounded excellent when under the influence.

The best and most widely used way to become more creative is to trick our minds into leaving the box. Let's do a quick little experiment.

Get a pen and paper and draw something pretty. . .

OK, done? Not so exciting huh? You probably drew some pink bunnies and kittens with huge eyes, right?

Now, draw a murder. . .

All done? You probably drew some poor dude being shot, stabbed, strangled, blown to pieces or all of it. Both your drawings were made inside the box. The first one was quite open and free, but ended up generic and not very exciting. The second drawing was more confined and specific, but still quite predictable.

Now relax and pick up your pen and draw a pretty murder.

Boom, you're out of the box. Wohoo. Feels great huh?

This third drawing is, unless you're Nick Cave, something you probably have very little experience of. There are no preconceived images connected to this concept.

There are numerous other ways to trick the mind and create a box-free situation. Creative people all over the world are well aware of this when it comes to giving birth to fantastic ideas to make money. But when it comes to other aspects of life we are not that creative. We do what we usually do, we eat the food we usually do and hang out with the people we usually do. We like what other people like, we are box-people. Security is primary, innovation is secondary. We like things to be well defined and orderly, we are conservative and we don't enjoy chaos.

But security is boring and takes us nowhere, except for old age and ultimately the unavoidable end. But if we can handle unorderly chaos we can achieve great things. If we embrace innovation and make it a habit to reach out of the cage in everyday situations we might be able to teach our minds to not fear the unknown possibilities.By constantly tricking our minds to leave the box, we will weaken the walls and become more open minded and creative.We will benefit from this at work and come up with better, more unique ways to make money for us and our clients. We will come up with new ideas on how to live our lives and how to interact with other people.

Who knows we might end up changing the world with new creative ways to organize society, just by thinking outside the box. So come out of your boxes, break the habits and do things you've never done before.

Martin Bergén is an intern at B-Reel and student at Hyper Island, Stockholm. Find out more about Martin here.

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