Author Archives: mluning

Problem-Solving Fun!

In this last blog post, I would like to talk about two forms of problem solving: Functional fixedness, and something labeled more informally as “thinking outside the box.”
Functional Fixedness is a cognitive bias that tends to limit a person’s interpretation of what objects can be used for. It was conceived by Gestalt psychologists, who basically focus on perceptions and behaviors. Functional fixedness is considered a process of problem solving. However, the fixedness portion of the title is what stops people from being able to solve certain given problems. Basically, our fixed perceptions of how objects are supposed to be used can set up a road block when it comes to thinking of different methods to use objects. For example, the famous example of the matchbook and the candle is an example of functional fixedness examined by Duncker in 1945. In the example, participants of a study had to figure out how to make sure a candle did not drip wax onto the table, but they were only given a book of matches, a little box of thumb tacks, and the candle. I like to think of functional fixedness problems as trick questions. To solve this problem, you have to think outside of the metaphorical box and not only know that you have to use the box that the tacks were in, but also know that you have to use the wall in front of you, which was not a specifically spoken about object.


I wanted to explore some other, closer to real life, examples of functional fixedness, which brought me to this site. Here, you can see some pretty creative solutions (some better than others obviously) to certain problems or situations. For example, this fountain made out of little kid pools! A much cooler example of functional fixedness, in my opinion, is the Rube Goldberg machine! As stated on Wikipedia, a Rube Goldberg machine can be defined as “a contraption, invention, device, or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion…” The Rube Goldberg machine takes functional fixedness out of the picture completely, because to make one, it’s pretty impossible to have the mindset that, say, a candle is a candle and it’s only purpose is to give off light. Instead, a Rube Goldberg machine might show us that a candle is something meant to burn a rope to set off the next reaction in a chain of events. It’s a little far-fetched, but bear with me here. To show a popular example of the wonderful Rube Goldberg machine, I suggest watching OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video.

In this video we see a toy truck being used to start a chain reaction of dominos, some spoons becoming platforms for little metal balls to bounce off of, a tire being used to turn on a series of lamps, and a teapot being used as a weight. These are all very abnormal functions of these objects, therefore demonstrating that the creators of this odd machine have absolutely no problem getting past their functional fixedness.

For those of you who are more interested in hearing about “thinking outside the box” or just want something a little more interactive (and at times infuriating) I recommend:
The Impossible Quiz.
I remember this little internet gem from my middle school years and I never understood it at all. The questions that you’ll see will almost always trip you up if you aren’t careful and really think outside the box. Our textbook calls things like this and the nine dot problem difficult because of an inappropriate problem-solving set –meaning that we don’t typically answer questions the way these problems are meant to be solved because we assume that there are certain rules when playing a game (like this quiz) or solving a problem.
On a personal note, I wonder if these problem solving techniques could naturally become more apparent in our lives, or less apparent, as we grow older. For example, in terms of functional fixedness I believe that as we get older, we assume a more fixed set of perceptions because we learn more and more that objects have specific uses. However, I also think that in terms of “thinking outside the box” we become better at that over time, at least in the case of the Impossible Quiz. Just glancing at it now after not having seen it since middle school, certain questions are more obvious to me because I know more about the world than I did when I was 12. For example [Spoiler Alert], question 6 is basically asking what do you get when you divide an onion? I didn’t know that the answer was shallots when I was 12 because I don’t think I even know that a shallot was a word or a real thing. But anyways, that’s all I’ve got on the subject of age and problem solving techniques. I hope you found these topics as interesting as I did!

Sex Differences and Mental Rotation

Can you tell which shape is the same as the one underlined?

Can you tell which shape is the same as the one underlined?

Spacial skills, specifically mental rotation, is a field of research that is full of questions pertaining to gender. Are men better at this than women? Are they the same? I found this Australian article by chance after googling “mental rotation.” It claims that women, specifically heterosexual women, are the worst at reading and deciphering maps. The hierarchy goes as follows from “best” to “worst”: heterosexual males, bisexual males, homosexual males, homosexual women, bisexual women, and finally, heterosexual women.

The way this article is phrased, it says that men and women’s ability to do mental rotation tasks is fundamentally different.  Unfortunately, this site did not have the study in question cited anywhere so I couldn’t find it to read it over myself, but it sounds pretty biased to me. Just saying. Anyways, there has been previous research that I have found to support that men, in general, are slightly better at spatial tasks than women, in general. However, research shows that this is probably not something that is inherently fixed in one’s sex or gender. One article says it has a lot to do with the gendered ways that we grow up. For example: boys are typically given trucks and Legos, which are geometrically shaped. Girls are not typically given these types of things. These gendered toys may be a major cause in this problem. This all leads me to conclude that if men are typically better at mental rotation than women it is because they have been doing it longer.

So why is mental rotation even important at all? Some speculate that it may improve one’s ability to dance or play a musical instrument. This would mean that it has a hand in one knowing where and how their body moves through space basically. However, this field needs some more research. Some other simple tasks that mental rotation helps us with every day is to recognize people from different angles. Say you see someone from the side and you don’t recognize them as being your roommate, a person you typically see quite often. The example listed in the first article I mentioned leads to possibly the most important use of mental rotation, which is the ability to read and make sense of maps. We are lucky to live in a society that has some high tech gadgets, such as GPS, that make map reading nearly a thing of the past. However, the ability to find your way in the wilderness if there is no satellite signal is probably a good skill to have. Realizing that you know the person standing to the side right next to you is also a good thing.

So how do we fix this? Good news: mental rotation is a skill that can be taught and learned. One study in particular talks about how video games enhanced female participant’s mental rotation skill to a point where it was equal to men’s in a very short amount of time, about ten hours. In fact, there are many different studies that advocate video games as a way to improve one’s spatial reasoning skills. Some other articles mention that sports are a good way to help boost these spatial skills.

As a woman who always shunned dolls and embraced Legos and Lincoln Logs (does anyone know what those are anymore??), who loves to play video games, from Bioshock to Minecraft to Dota 2 (judge me if you will, I don’t mind), who plays multiple instruments, never danced but did participate in rigorous gymnastics until I was 14, and a participator in my high school field hockey team and horseback riding ever since I can remember anything else in my life, I would hope very much that my spatial and mental rotation skills would lead me to become a fabulous map reader if need-be.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

By the way, the answer to the first picture is number 4.

Have you heard?: Isochronic Tones and Binaural Beats.


If you simply search “Cognitive” in Youtube you might see a few videos talking about their cognition enhancing music. They call this music Isochronic tones. They also go by the name Binaural Beats. Supposedly, some of these 30 – 60 minute long clips can relieve you of insomnia, headaches, and even stimulate your neurons to release dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters. There is even one that is 8 hours long and claims that if you put it on before you go to sleep, it will help you enter a state of lucid dreaming (this clip in particular happens to have over 1 million views). These tones and beats are supposed to enact a process in ones brain called brainwave entrainment. The first source I came across was by a software developer stating that this process, “enables the use of audio or visual stimuli to affect the brain and help people with a variety of problems.” (See here).

At the bottom of the site it lists three quotes from some peer-reviewed journal articles to support the notion that brainwave entrainment is a good therapeutic solution to things such as headaches, stress, behavioral problems, and focus issues. Unfortunately, I could not find available copies of these three specific articles. This site also connected me here  to a list of studies done involving forms of brainwave entrainment.


A promising study titled “Alpha Brainwave Entrainment as a Cognitive Performance Activator,” from a 2013 volume of Cognition, Brain, Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal, found that, specifically, the use of binary beasts did produce a positive change in cognition when used in tandem with a strobe light in 30 minute intervals. It mentions that the Stroop effect, which we know refers to how it is easier for someone to name colors of words that match (ex. The word blue showing up in a blue color) than it is to name words with non-corresponding colors, had something to do with the final results.

It appears that these techniques are relatively new to the this-is-how-to-make-your-brain-better community. Personally, I can say that I listened to the above clip while I wrote this article and I don’t feel very different. Maybe a little sleepy. Take a listen and see what you think.

Multitasking: Do Music and Studying Mix?

I usually like to study alone, but if I’m ever over with a friend having a study session or just mutual homework time, a common question I get is often, “Hey, do you mind if I put on some music? I work better with it on.” In high school I used to religiously put on music when I did homework, but as I’ve gotten older I stopped. I kept finding it harder and harder to concentrate, and thinking back on it now, in the times that I had my music on while trying to do homework, I was very slow and pretty unproductive. This brings me to my question: is listening to music while doing homework harmful or helpful?

The first article cites two studies (both of which I have not found away around having to pay for to access: 1 & 2). The gist of the first study cited is that people were asked to remember information in a specific order after either being in a quiet environment, listening to someone say “three” repeatedly, listening to random numbers being said, listening to music they reportedly liked, or listening music that they reportedly did not like. The findings were that those who were in the quiet environment or with the person saying “three” over and over scored higher than the other three groups, which were not significantly different from each other. However, the other study that was cited, though getting similar results showing that those who listened to music scored lower than those who did not, also concluded that individual differences must account for a large variation in scores in general. Some of these differences may include if the participants were used to listening to music while studying or not.

Interestingly, this study talks about how music can influence mood, therefore influencing productivity. It states that what a person feels towards a musical piece depends on their past experiences with that specific piece. This was all being studied in the context of software development company, which reportedly is very stressful in nearly all stages of development. The interest in music comes from thinking that lower stress means higher productivity (which may be an entirely wrong assumption but might not be either, I haven’t done the research to know *cough,cough* someone should maybe find out and comment? *cough*). The researchers found that when music was taken out of a person’s daily work habits the person was likely to go through what may have been considered music withdraw, therefore they experienced more stress and less productivity. In the case where music was integrated into a work environment where people were not used to listening to music, results were not positive in the beginning, but after a few weeks people showed a more positive emotion than on the first week. The overall conclusion was that to keep people as stress-free and as productive as possible (when considering music during work) people should be able to choose to listen or to not listen, and also pick their own duration of listening to music.

Even after all that, I still have some unanswered questions. What would the difference be in listening to different cultural music than what you may be used to? Say, for instance if I listened to Indian music? Or, which I’m sure has already be addressed in some study out there, what is the difference in listening to music with lyrics vs. no lyrics? Or even the difference between music that you like but do not know the lyrics, vs. music that you like and you do know the lyrics? I often would find myself singing along and not paying attention to my work when I used to listen to music while trying to study. There is so much music in the world that I feel you would have to read an obscene amount of literature to understand how each one effected you, not even including one’s own feelings and experiences with certain types of music.

One of the things that inspired me to write about music is that, on occasion, either while going about my daily life or while doing homework assignments such as this one, certain songs will get stuck in my head and they often feel very relatable to my current situation. Is this a form of listening to music while working? Or is it something that your brain uses to help you remember things? I’ve heard from teachers that you should try and take tests in the same exact spot that you sit in in class. Or that you should chew the same flavored gum while you study as when you take a test, that supposedly these things will help you hold onto memories that are associated with your gum chewing or seat position as long as they stay constant. Could music be the same way? Though I’m sure it’s not permitted, if I listened to, for example, Jason Mraz’s “Remedy” (the song that happens to be stuck in my head right now), while reading my textbook, would I better remember what was written there on the test day if I listened to the same song while taking the test?

In addition to such questions, which as it turns out just leads to many more questions, do the songs that get stuck in our heads have meanings? In trying to understand why this “Remedy” song (which I dislike greatly and have not listened to since middle school) is stuck in my head, I’m thinking that these lyrics maybe have something to do with what’s going on in this blog post?

This is about to get really outlandish so bear with me… There is a section of the song that goes, “the remedy is the experience/ this is a dangerous liaison.” The definition of liaison being: “communication or cooperation that facilitates a close working relationship between people or organizations” (Google). Is that not relevant to what I’m writing about in an abstract way? If the remedy (music) is experience, which is what this whole article is about, how we experience music in different situations, then perhaps dangerous is a bit of a stretch, but it may be a cooperation of mental faculties to facilitate music and our brains working closely together to help us understand information in certain situations?

Perhaps that’s a load of nonsense.

Do you ever get songs stuck in your head that pertain to your life’s situation? Tell me what you think.