By Morton M.Hunt
HAVE YOU EVER found it impossible to figure out some gadget until someone showed you, then said, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” Have you ever found it difficult to make a seemingly ordinary decision? Have you ever forgotten a friend’s name when introducing him at a party?
These things do not usually happen by chance. All of us, in the tangle of “electric circuits” inside our heads, have millions of bits of information stored away. But sometimes when we have a problem to solve-even a simple one-short circuits prevent the relevant information from getting out. Psychologists call these short circuits “mental blocks.”
The commonest kind of mental block is emotional. Fear, as most of us know, can sometimes blank out all intelligent thought. But even mild apprehension can cause a block. In an experiment 50 University students had to translate a number of sentences into a simple code, some of the sentences being calculated to make the students nervous. One such was: “My family does not respect my judgment.” The uneasiness this idea caused had an immediate effect on the student’s thinking power. It took them longer, and with 50 percent more errors, to code all such loaded sentences than the neutral ones.
When you find a simple problem perplexingly difficult, ask yourself whether some element in it is upsetting you-perhaps it merely reminds you of something unpleasant. A salesman may delay making a call, for example, because the customer reminds him of someone he fears or dislikes. Just recognizing a block of this sort will often help clear your mental circuits.
Another cause of emotional block is pressure. Almost any college student can tell you how well-studied facts have vanished from his mind under the pressure of taking a final exam. We often think that people produce best under strong stimulus or competition. That may be true in running a foot race, but when you are seeking new ideas or tying to solve a knotty problem, increased pressure is more likely to cause a mental block.
Being too eager to succeed can produce the same result. Prof. Jerome S. Bruner of Harvard University taught rats to solve a tricky maze to get food. Rats that hadn’t eaten for 12 hours caught on in about six tries. But rats that had been starved for 36 hours took more than 20 tries; over motivation-working under excessive hunger-gummed up their “reasoning” ability. The same principle applies to humans. It is the overzealous ballplayer who makes the wild throw; the overeager job hunter who stammers during the interview; the over intent quiz-show contestant who blanks out about something he really knows.
When you face a serious problem and have been strenuously working at it without getting anywhere, “sticking to it” may be a mistake. Under pressure your brain has probably developed something similar to a “feedback effect”-it goes round and round, and nothing new can get in. so leave the problem for a while-go fishing, paint the house, visit a friend. Give your mind time to clear its circuits and let the flow of ideas begin again. When you come back to your problem you may find a completely new approach.
Another major source of mental block, psychologists find lies in preconception-a prearrangement, so to speak, of our brain circuits that limits our thinking. If you have ever misplaced an important paper on a cluttered desk, you know the effects of this. You shuffle through everything again and again, but you just can’t find what you’re looking for. Then someone else comes over and spots it at once. The paper turns out to be a little different color or size than you remembered, and that preconception kept you from recognizing it.
Ready-made notions on how to solve a problem can often be misleading, too. An old parlor trick, used by German psychologist Karl Duncker, shows how this works. Somebody lays six matches on a table and says: “Make four equal-sided triangles.” Most people push the matches around for a while, then give up. But a few suddenly see something new. They lay out one triangle and then, from its corners, build up a three-sided pyramid with the other three matches-and, presto, the puzzle is solved.
People are likely to be annoyed at his outcome: “You didn’t say ‘in three dimensions,’” they complain, but neither did anyone say “in two dimensions.” The matches were laid flat on the table-and that was enough for most people. They thought only of a two-dimensional solution.
Preconceptions are often a part of everyday business life, where they masquerade as “experience.” They are that, but past experience may block creative solutions for the future. Charles h. Clark of the Ethyl Corp. once compiled a blacklist of “killer phrases” that often blight new ideas. “Let’s be practical,” for one, or “We’ve never done anything like that,” or “Customers won’t stand of it.”
Some research organizations, aware of the dangers of such habitual ways of thinking, deliberately try to break them down. In the long-range planning division of Bell Laboratores, for instance, at least one man new to the problem at hand was placed in each group of scientists studying a particular project. His fresh approach, his lack of a ready-made solution, shakes up the thinking of the whole group and results, often, in original and better ideas.
What can you do about preconceptions? If you find yourself stymied by a problem, try thinking: how would a high-school kid, or my wife, or the brightest person I know try to do it ?” if this doesn’t help, then find people whose knowledge and training are different from yours and talk the problem over. Maybe an outside catalyst is what you need.
Education, ironically, can be another source of mental block, especially if students are taught to approach every problem in a rigid textbook fashion. This is true not only of formal schooling but of our learning of everyday things as well. A Swarthmore professor once asked his psychology students to retrieve a ping-pong ball from the bottom of an upright rusty pipe. In the room were a hammer, pliers, rulers, soda straws, pins and a bucket of dirty wash water. The students began by fishing around vainly with the various objects, but finally about half of them saw that the solution lay in pouring the dirty water into the cylinder and floating the ball up. Afterward the professor repeated the experiment with other students, but with one difference-he replaced the bucket of dirty water with a pitcher of ice water, set on a crisp tablecloth and surrounded by gleaming goblets. Not one student solved the problem. Why? Because each one “knew” that fresh ice water in a pitcher is for drinking, not for pouring into a rusty pipe to solve a problem.
The answer is not, of course, to avoid education, but to avoid rigid, narrow education. If teachers and parents pound into a child’s head that there is a right and wrong way to do everything, he will tend to be rigid in his thinking. If they encourage him to work things out for himself, his thinking will naturally be more flexible. When he grows up and tries to design a better automobile, or resolve a quarrel, he will not be limited to stock approaches.
One of the most successful methods of countering mental blocks is the conference technique called “brainstorming.” The rules are these: (1) anything goes, (2) the wilder the ideas the better, and (3) nobody may criticize any idea. Someone records all the ideas and only afterward do the brainstormers go over them critically and choose any useful ones. It’s a technique you can use in your own family, your business or social groups, when you have a problem to solve. You can even do it by yourself: by deliberately sitting down to think-about your job, you home, your budget-and jotting down ideas as fast as they come into your mind. You might also try to imagine what different people would say in response to each idea. By playing such mental games you may find an ingenious way to solve your problem, be it a financial matter or family dilemma.
Finally, if blocks still prevent you from seeing the solution, you can sometimes break the log-jam by simply starting-anywhere, but at once. Finding yourself in the middle of the consequences may abruptly change your perspective. A prominent writer told me about the awful time he used to have trying to get a good beginning for an article; it cost him days of wasted time. His solution: start anywhere and get going. When he’s through, he finds it easy to back up and tack on a beginning.
Many problems are less difficult than they seem and deserve less attention than they get. In these cases especially it is wise to begin at once. It’s like deciding whether or not to jump into cold water. Once you jump, the problem doesn’t exist.