The Creative Power of Psychological Distance

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list. The semi-autobiographical, anti-war tale of Vonnegut’s time as a POW in Dresden during WWII, touched a nerve with a country that was deeply divided about its involvement in yet another war overseas.

Vonnegut, however, struggled to make sense of the horrors he witnessed. As he wrote, “I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen.” It wasn’t until he took a completely upside-down approach to his storytelling — in the form of a sci-fi dark comedy about time travel — that the book took shape.

The result? His most revered work, and, many would argue, one of the greatest novels of the American literary canon.

So, what happened there? What was the mental shift that allowed Vonnegut to adjust his storytelling so he could more authentically express his experiences? And, how did he manage to make that shift?

A Little Distance May Get You Closer

Vonnegut may have employed what social scientists call “psychological distance.” The theory of psychological distance posits that the further we are psychologically from an event or object, the more abstractly we tend to view it. (Conversely, the more psychologically near we are to a thing, the more zoomed-in on the details, the further we are from the “big picture.”)

To this point, scientists have demonstrated that increasing our psychological distance to a problem — that is, stepping back to transcend the here and now — may increase creativity. That may be exactly what Vonnegut was doing (knowingly or otherwise).

By psychologically removing himself from his concrete, day-to-day connection to Dresden — and pulling back to a more abstract view, free from the constraints of time and space — he could see a creative new approach to the telling of his story.

But, how do we reach this abstract mindset? When we’ve hit a creative rut, how can we create the psychological distance within ourselves that’s needed to open our minds to new solutions?

For starters, here are four techniques to help shift your perspective and ramp up your creativity:

#1 Just go with the “flow.”

Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes a state of consciousness that he refers to as “flow.” In this state, people experience a highly focused mindset where they feel completely immersed in the creative experience; they are actively creative “for its own sake.”

During this “flow experience,” people tend to feel immense enjoyment and creative freeness — where “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed people across numerous professions — e.g., chess players, sports figures, doctors, etc. — and determined that a flow state is attainable for everyone. The key to achieving it is to face a challenge that exceeds your skill set, but only slightly.

The stretching of your abilities is a good thing; it places us in what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” where cognitive activity is very high. (Whereas, when people continuously engage in activities that do not challenge them, boredom tends to set it; and boredom does not beget flow.)

However, there is a caveat: Getting to a place where the flow state can happen takes a lot of effort. Csikszentmihalyi says that “this automatic, spontaneous process … can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.” But, once the time and effort are put in, “the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, [and] begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

#2 Lean back. Literally.

#3 Let your mind wander.

When frustrated with a challenging problem, distraction may be the key.

When our noses are against the proverbial grindstone, we can become, well, too focused … and find ourselves stuck in unhelpful, cyclical thinking. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicated that finding a distraction — like taking a walk, a shower, or exercising — gives the brain the space it needs to free associate, allowing us to see other ways of working through a problem.

Furthermore, that study argued that an inclination toward distraction may be an indicator of creativity itself: “Not only are creative people more susceptible to ‘novelty,’ and thus distraction, but mind wandering itself is associated with highly creative people.

#4 Read something that challenges how you see things.

Humans are pattern finders. We look for meaning and connection in everything. It is in our makeup to fill in gaps and make sense of our experiences — especially when our usual perception of the world is under threat.

For example, in one study participants were asked to read an absurdist short story, one that offered up no clear meaning or purpose for its characters. Afterward, they were given a series of tests. The result? The study participants showed both a “heightened motivation to perceive” and an “enhanced learning” of the presence of patterns when compared to a control group.

The researchers believe this suggests that when we are confronted with something that goes against our logical understanding — a “meaning threat,” as they call it — we work even harder to find or create meaning. And this very human tendency to make sense of the seemingly absurd may be another way for us to ramp up our creative thinking and see things that were previously hidden to us.

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All of these tips, really, are just ways to help us get out of our own way: to shift from a narrow, self-focused mindset, to a broader, global perspective.

Perhaps Csikszentmihalyi put it best when he said: “[Creative people] show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’”

Maybe in order to say what you really want to say, you must first step back and let the different parts of your mind speak to one another — and figure out, for themselves, just what that is.

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