We’ve probably all groaned at some point at the buzzword bingo phrase “thinking outside the box”. A group of psychologists actually tested out the reality of whether people’s thinking is constrained when they’re in a smaller physical space. The experiment took place in a large hall, which had a five-foot square box, like a small tent, in the middle. People in the experiment were given an associative thinking test and randomly assigned to either sit in the hall, or in the box. The results for outside the box were all significantly higher. This shows that our brains are affected by our sense of space. So, there’s a direct relationship between our available cognitive resources and our perception of space in conscious awareness.
Space is a surprising phenomenon. For instance, there’s much more empty space than stuff in the universe. If a hydrogen atom were the size of the earth, the proton at the centre would be equivalent to the width of eight tennis courts. All the rest is empty space. Apparently, if it was possible to squeeze the space out of all the atoms in the whole human race, you could fit what was left into the volume of a single sugar cube.
Sometimes we can feel a bit like that sugar cube, squeezed and compacted, with no space to think, to reflect, to respond skilfully and make the most of our abilities. We can feel stressed and overloaded, with tension in our bodies reinforcing the feeling of tightness – like an overwound guitar string at the end of its limits. At times like these, we need access to a broader and more open perspective to what we’re experiencing.
There are also other things that make us feel we’re in a tight space. One is that we spend most of our attention on the foreground content of our experience; in other words, the text in the message, the objects in a room, etc. This can lead to tunnel vision, where we miss what’s going on in the background. Like trying to hold a meaningful conversation with someone when they’re busy on their smartphone. This selective attention experiment is a great demonstration, which is worth watching before you continue. In the experiment, people are asked to count the number of passes in a basketball game, while someone in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. Half the people who watch the video miss the gorilla.
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