Think Fresh: When Is a Hammer Not a Hammer?

Though the human brain is the most inno­v­a­tive instru­ment on earth, we remain a con­ser­v­a­tive species. Most of us relapse to old ways of think­ing even when we think we are doing some­thing new. Our brain’s “sim­i­lar equals iden­ti­cal” mech­a­nism, which comes from expe­ri­ence, is both a good and bad adap­ta­tion. Rely­ing on expe­ri­ence, which is how we make sense of the world, how we learn, how we build civ­i­liza­tion, is suf­fi­cient for most worka­day mat­ters. Real­ly big issues, how­ev­er, are very often sim­i­lar on the sur­face but have com­pli­cat­ed details and nuances that make them sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent underneath.

Folk wis­dom says that, if we have only a ham­mer, every prob­lem looks like a nail. Entrenched famil­iar­i­ty caus­es us to try to fit each new sit­u­a­tion into what­ev­er solu­tion we already have in our men­tal toolk­it. We lose the abil­i­ty to exam­ine our toolk­it for new uses. Or to cre­ate entire­ly new tools. All learn­ing comes from mak­ing new con­nec­tions, not rely­ing on old ones. We need to invest in doing new things and try­ing new approach­es to even the rou­tine prob­lems in our lives—espe­cial­ly if we think new ways are unnecessary.

Who­ev­er said that a ham­mer is a sin­gle-pur­pose tool? It is a gen­er­al-pur­pose tool that can act as a weight, door stop, pry-bar, ten­nis rac­quet, gav­el, sign hold­er, grap­pling hook, gar­den spade, bal­last for a toy boat, sound­ing device to mea­sure flu­id lev­els in a tank, and as a totem and sym­bol of trib­al lead­er­ship (see The Earth Abides). Some­times it can even pound nails.

The inno­v­a­tive use of tools brings to mind a trip to Africa. There are no spare parts in the bush, and the cre­ativ­i­ty of African auto mechan­ics is beau­ti­ful to watch. Once, the seat broke on an old Land Rover. The only way to repair it was with an over­sized sol­der­ing iron pow­ered by a propane tank. The sol­der­ing iron would have set the cloth seat on fire and burned the vehi­cle up. After con­sid­er­ing the prob­lem for a few min­utes, the mechan­ic left the shop for ten or fif­teen min­utes. He returned with a buck­et of mud and spread the mud over the seat close to where he need­ed to work. He added water to keep the mud moist as he made the sol­der. When he was done, he cleaned the seat and the vehi­cle was on its way.

In the “civ­i­lized” world, the garage would order a new seat, sev­er­al days would be required for deliv­ery, and it would cost a for­tune. The same is true for oth­er prob­lems. The shop hooks up a diag­nos­tic tool, finds the trou­ble, and replaces the part. No one actu­al­ly repairs any­thing any­more. All of the things that make life eas­i­er also make us less cre­ative. We gen­er­al­ly accept the trade­off because mod­ern devices are more reli­able and more ener­gy effi­cient than ear­li­er tech­nol­o­gy. The point is twofold: We should get the most of our tech­nol­o­gy with­out let­ting it enslave us, and we should do hard things on pur­pose from time to time to stim­u­late our minds.

Anoth­er way to avoid men­tal inflex­i­bil­i­ty is to decon­struct the prob­lem. Soft­ware devel­op­ers exam­in­ing ways to reuse code are much more like­ly to suc­ceed if they pull out indi­vid­ual sec­tions and ana­lyze how the sep­a­rate parts might be used rather than try to reimag­ine ways to revise the entire mod­ule. By break­ing the prob­lem into sep­a­rate pieces, they untan­gle their minds from the cur­rent uti­liza­tion. At a high­er lev­el, the strat­e­gy is to change the con­text of the prob­lem and to con­scious­ly think of ways of remov­ing any pre­con­ceived con­straints about the nature of the problem.

Get­ting out­side the norm requires inten­tion. Just being aware of our ten­den­cy to fall into men­tal inflex­i­bil­i­ty helps us avoid it. Sim­ple changes can also help over­come our innate men­tal inflex­i­bil­i­ty, as shown by what hap­pens when we trav­el to a new city. After just a few hours, we begin to devel­op a cog­ni­tive map of the area. We fig­ure out that we turn left at the cor­ner to go to the cof­fee shop or right to see the cathe­dral. We find land­marks that guide us back to our hotel. Mas­ter­ing an unfa­mil­iar envi­ron­ment is per­ceived as plea­sur­able. New con­nec­tions occur. New cir­cuits form in the brain. The anti­dote to the bore­dom and waste of rou­tine existence—and the rigid­i­ty and decline that sets in almost immediately—is to put our­selves in sit­u­a­tions in which we are not mas­ters! Tem­po­rary men­tal dis­com­fort is the trade­off for chal­leng­ing the brain, pulling it out of a habit­u­al mode, and stim­u­lat­ing new con­nec­tions and capa­bil­i­ties. Like climb­ing a moun­tain, we can achieve men­tal success—and men­tal pleasure—only when we expend energy.

Excerpt from the book, Max­i­mum Brain­power: Chal­leng­ing the Brain for Health and Wis­dom, by Shlo­mo Breznitz and Collins Hem­ing­way. Copy­right © 2012 by Shlo­mo Breznitz & Collins Hem­ing­way. Reprint­ed by arrange­ment with Bal­lan­tine Books, an imprint of The Ran­dom House Pub­lish­ing Group, a divi­sion of Ran­dom House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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