Think outside the Thumbtack box

Recently, on his blog The Prefrontal Cortex, 2008 IdeaFestival speaker and author of Proust was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide Jonah Lehrer took the opportunity to provide a rather unusual reason to travel, setting up the issue like this:

Travel... is a basic human desire. We're a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here's my question: is this collective urge to travel - to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know - still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat, one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun then I think the TSA killed it.

Joking aside, the beneficiaries of the travel compulsion, and in particular people who have spent an extended time abroad, have a higher likelihood of solving particular psychological problem know as the Duncker Candle Problem, which asks participants to find a way to use a box with a few thumbtacks and a book of matches to a attach a waxy candle to a corkboard. Earlier this year, two business schools discovered that students who had lived abroad could think outside the thumbtack box, as it were.

Well, so what?

According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable openmindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as a compliment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn't good enough to finish.

Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This, in turn, allows them to expand the circumference of their 'cognitive inputs,' as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. After all, maybe they carry candles in thumbtackboxes in China. Maybe there's abetter way to attach a candle to a wall.

As it turns out, those who were able to attach the candle to the wall were able to overcome a functional fixedness and emptied the box of thumbtacks to arrive at a novel solution. Read Lehrer's entire post to find out how.