functional un-fixedness is fun

Upside-Down Church

I watched a programme on telly last night, The Creative Brain: How Insight Works where some researchers talked about creativity and the brain.

One theme of the documentary was on the structural differences in people’s brains (and within the hemispheres of all brains.)

What is known as intelligence and quick thinking comes about in white matter, which contains a lot of shorter, more direct routes between neurones.

Creativity on the other hand comes about in grey matter, where neurones are connected in long and winding, less direct routes.

In all brains the right hemisphere tended to have longer connecting dendrites, the theory being that there was more varied interactions between neurones in this half of the brain.

There was also talk of how different brain processes played a part in creative thought. Four interesting things were discussed, three of which were:

  • how the visual part of the brain switched off during mental processing – an explanation for why people close their eyes, or drift off into the middle distance when thinking or day-dreaming;
  • how unconscious thought played a key role, rather than overt analytical thinking – an explanation of why you have flashes of insight when you’re doing simple tasks like washing up dishes;
  • and methods for getting into a creative state of mind, after having been given a problem to think about – meditation, simple tasks like lego building, and improvisation – also known as play.

As an aside with regards to meditation, I find that I am most creative in the first moments after waking up – especially if it’s at a point in my sleep when I can remember my dreams.

The other interesting thing in the documentary was some research into the effects of schema violations on creativity; when people experienced new and different things, there was an increase in their creative thinking, and a decrease in their functional fixedness. Functional fixedness isn’t something I’d heard about before, so to quote the Wikipedia article:

“Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.”

The reason I found all these parts interesting – simple tasks, improvisational play and schema violations – is that they all seem to be apparent in computer games that have a pleasurable appeal. It made me wonder whether the pleasure derived from these games (and all good games in general, regardless of genre) was the fact that they required the player to be creative in new ways by repeating simple tasks in an improvisational manner.

Three examples of puzzle games are the Portal series, Braid and Tetris.

As Sid Meier is quoted, a game is a series of interesting choices, so it made me wonder, are the flashes of insight required for playing these three games what makes them interesting and pleasurable?

And isn’t this the same form of bio-chemical reward we experienced all the time during childhood, when we learnt something new through play?