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Cognitive Obstacles: Why Distractions Can Improve Creativity and Problem-Solving

From Wikipedia commons

Getting things done takes focus. When it comes to studying for exams or preparing for presentations we strive to get “in the zone,” that magical state where time seems to stop and we gain a sense of complete control while becoming totally absorbed in what needs to be done. (What Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi terms flow.) Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker visually captures this; hunched over with his chin resting on his hand, the statue portrays the image of deep concentration well.

When it comes to getting things done, distractions and obstacles are thought to be bad. But a few recent studies suggest a different picture. To begin, consider Shane Frederick’s “Cognitive Reflection Test.” In it, participants are asked to answer a series of word problems including the following:

If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

  • 100 minutes
  • 5 minutes

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, that patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

  • 24 days
  • 47 days

Frederick had two groups answer the puzzles. The first saw them in a “small font in washed-out gray print,” and the other saw them in a “normal font.” The puzzles written in the harder were designed to induce “cognitive strain.” Frederick found that “90 percent of the students who saw the Cognitive Reflection Test in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35 percent when the font was barely legible.” In other words, participants performed better when the puzzles were harder to see.

What explains this?

The easier a problem is the less time we are going to spend on it. This makes sense most of the time; we complete simple math problems on auto-pilot because they don’t demand very much cognitive energy. When we encounter a difficult problem we spend more time on it because it requires more from our neurons. In other words, we know that the chances of us making a mistake are higher so we pay more attention. But sometimes difficult problems are disguised as easy problems, and we run into trouble when we deploy the same amount of cognitive effort on the former thinking it is the latter. Frederick’s study reminds us of this. (The answers, by the way, are 5 minutes and 47 days.)

Let’s consider two more experiments, which Jonah Lehrer highlighted on his blog the other day. Both experiments come from a study led by Janina Marguc out of the University of Amsterdam. In one, Marguc and her team had participants complete a computer maze game. She created two groups: one had to solve the maze with a blocking obstacle, which made it harder to find the escape route, and the other had to solve the maze without a blocking obstacle. Then, both groups were given a remote association test. Here’s an example: what word connects “envy,” “golf,” and “beans? (Green.) Marguc found that the group exposed to the blocking obstacle solved 40 percent more remote associate puzzles. This means, as Lehrer explains, that “the constraint had forced them into a creative mindset; their imaginations benefited from the struggle.”

In the second experiment Marguc asked participants to solve anagrams. Again, she created two groups: one was forced to listen to a neutral voice of repeating words and the other was not. Next, Marguc had them complete a test that assessed global versus local thinking. “A more global thought process is,” as Lehrer explains, “generally ideal for coming up with truly creative solutions, as it makes people more likely to notice cross-cutting connections.” To do this she asked them to complete a Navon letter task, which asks participants to automatically respond to images of letters made up of letters. (So imagine the letter E written with a bunch of little A’s and the letter A written with a bunch of little E’s. Click here to see what this looks like.) She found that those who listened to the neutral voice perceived the letters holistically while those who did not saw the particular letters. That is, the “neutral voice” participants saw the letter E as the letter E while the other group saw it as an A.

Taken together, these two experiments, along with the other experiments in the study, “suggest that obstacles trigger an ‘if obstacle, then start global processing’ response, primarily when people are inclined to stay engaged and finish ongoing activities.” Or Lehrer’s take: “this is why constraints are so important: It’s not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance – a challenge we can’t easily resolve – that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious.”

I want to connect Frederick’s work with Marguc’s. Both describe two different phenomena to be sure; cognitive strain illustrates how cognition is affected by “the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands,” while Marguc’s study demonstrates how mental obstacles force us to think holistically to generate more creative solutions. But they both play off of the same principle: the important role of mental distractions and obstacles in problem solving.

From Wikipedia commons

When I was in school I was taught the importance of studying in an environment with few distractions. There is more than a grain of truth to this; Facebook, text messaging, and email clearly get in the way of more important “needs”. But sometimes mental distractions and obstacles – those cognitive hiccups that force us to focus – are a good thing. The work of Frederick and Marguc suggest that when it comes to solving word problems, completing mazes, tackling a Navon letter task and the like it is important that your brain doesn’t get too comfortable. We want to get “in the zone,” but doing so might cause us to make more mistakes than we would like.

The takeaway message is not just a reminder to remain focused during easy tasks, but also to realize the important role that cognitive constraints play in our creative (as Lehrer’s post suggests) and analytical (as Frederick’s study suggests) thinking. Stravinsky was right, then, to say that “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self… the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rk #

    Interesting researches! But does making the problem more difficult equal to distraction? To my experience difficult problems make more concentrated. However constantly switching among facebooking, chatting, checking email or working make my mind shallow. It also takes time for my mind to adjust from one thing to another.

    November 14, 2011
    • sammcnerney #


      In regard to Frederick’s research, the problems were not made more difficult – they were the same in every case. The differences were in the visual clarity.

      And yes, I feel like constantly checking social networks is really harmful to my brain!

      November 14, 2011
      • Hi. Thank you so much for sharing my video. I only wish all those ppoele who argue that it isn’t offensive could read posts like this and hear from moms like Robin about how the word is hurled at their children. Barb, I totally agree, I wish we could all reach more middle schoolers and teens. They are major offenders.

        August 1, 2013
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        August 28, 2013
      • oh my goodness, you have NO idea how etecxid I am to finally be linking up over here! It has been months and months since I have done a piece of furniture…. but I finally finally have something to share at your party and I am thrilled :o) Thanks for hosting friend!!Jaime

        October 26, 2013
  2. There’s a comment David Allen makes in one of his books that I’ve always found instructive: “We don’t mind the constraints that really work for us,” and he goes on to cite things like lines down the highway that guide traffic. They limit our behavior, but allow us to relax and enjoy driving, and get more safely and quickly to our destination.

    I think we will see more research like this, and hopefully more helpful applications of it. Human cognition is powerful, but limited; the best way to exploit that power, I think, is to impose constraints that keep us from having to decide, juggle, or do too many competing things at once.

    November 15, 2011
  3. I hope no one shows this to teenagers doing homework without headphones, not really, if they had shown me this they could play those songs, they did research. I have also known a couple of people with significant head injuries who needed background noise to think/focus when I was doing advocacy work.

    Some blogers get upset if you thank people, but thank you for the wonderful articles.

    November 16, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for your comment Patrick!

      November 16, 2011
  4. nathan #

    You do realize that no where in the Frederick’s paper does the word “font” appear, as in “small font in washed-out gray print”. see:

    March 28, 2012
  5. Not too long ago a person I knew well, and receestpd, was using the R-word. I asked them to stop and explained why it was offensive. They “explained” that since they were using it as an “adjective” it could not be construed as offensive. Right. It’s OK as an adjective, but not as a noun?I don’t think so.

    August 1, 2013
  6. abarbara on This is the work done by Paula Gambin, Cherise Greach, Shannon Pace, Graziella Chetcuti and Megan Galea for the YRE cootteipimnabarbara on This is the work of Grace Anne Muscat for the YRE cootteipimn

    August 28, 2013

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