By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Researchers for centuries have been interested in understanding how humans solve problems. As Professor Vishton explains, it involves more than just our brains.
Problem-Solving with Our Bodies
The way we solve problems is not like a computer. Our brains seem to be influenced by how we use our bodies when we’re engaged in creative problem-solving.
A classic research method, called the two string problem, has been used to better understand what leads to the insights that enable us to solve problems. In this research, study participants enter a large room that is mostly empty. In the middle of the room, two strings hang from the ceiling. Initially, those two strings are about four feet apart.
On the floor nearby sit a book of matches, a pair of pliers, and a few pieces of cotton. The task that the experimenter gives the participant is to take the two strings and touch the ends of them together.
Initially, when the strings are only four feet apart, this task is easy. One just grabs the ends and touches them together.
Then the experimenter moves the ceiling attachment positions for those two strings further apart: five feet, six feet, seven feet. The participants aren’t allowed to climb up to the ceiling to move these anchors. The task is to bring the two ends of the strings together without the ladder.
Initially, the participant grabs one string, walks over until she can reach the second, and pulls the two together. However, when the strings are hung far enough apart, this is no longer possible. The participants stretch an arm out as far as possible, but still can’t reach that other string.
Most participants realize that they can use the supplies on the floor to extend their reach a little. That might buy them one extra solution. If they’re holding the string, now they can grab it with the pliers and pull it in.
Then, though, the experimenter moves the strings further apart again. Even with the pliers, the participant still can’t reach all the way over. What would you do next? Remember that the equipment you have to work with is a book of matches, a pair of pliers, and a few pieces of cotton.
This problem is somewhat challenging to solve, but still easy enough that a lot of people will eventually solve it. It has provided a good test bed for exploring what sorts of manipulations might hinder problem-solving, and conversely what sorts of things we can do to enhance it.
Movement and Creativity
One of the key things you can do to improve problem-solving is to allow the person to keep moving around as they try to solve it. When the participant gets stuck—and most do at this point, for at least several minutes—if they sit down and think about it, it will be harder to solve this problem. It will take longer, and they are actually a lot more likely to give up without actually coming up with a solution.
Alternatively, if an experimenter instructs the participant to move around while they’re thinking, the participants often start to do something interesting. They will often swing an arm from side to side like a pendulum. Moving the body doesn’t merely get the blood flowing; it seems to contribute directly to finding a solution.
Any guess about the solution? If you haven’t figured it out, stand up and do this yourself. Imagine the two strings hanging from your ceiling; you’ve got your stuff in the room. Stand there and swing your arm from side to side.
Did you get it? If you want to pause and think about it, now would be a good time. Keep moving around while you do. There is good evidence that it will help.
Here’s the solution that most participants do eventually discover. If you tie one of the strings to the pliers, then the pliers can act as a weight at the bottom of a pendulum.
The participants often have this insight. They set one of the strings swinging back and forth; they hold the other string and wait for the pliers to swing towards them and then they grab it. Now they can put those two strings together; problem solved. Therefore, if you want to effectively solve problems, let your body keep moving.
A recent study suggests that sitting in a chair—something we all do a lot—reduces our thinking effectiveness. If someone performs mathematical computations—even simple math problems—or comes up with as many creative uses as possible for a brick, they’ll perform these tasks faster if they are standing up as compared to sitting down. If they lie down on the floor, the performance gets much worse.
It’s probably not a coincidence that mathematicians traditionally work on hard problems while standing at a large board. The enormous increase of interest in office desks that enable standing is also relevant.
Your brain is certainly important, but it’s only a part of your body. Our cognition clearly seems to extend to the body as a whole. Even complex concepts often seem connected to physical actions.
When you are stuck trying to figure something out, try standing and moving around. Not only are you more likely to find a solution, but you’re also giving your brain a better workout.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.