lego ducks being assembled with hands in x-ray form showing brains connected to hands

Thinking Beyond Your Brain

lego ducks being assembled with hands in x-ray form showing brains connected to handsThinking Beyond Your Brain: Understanding the Bridge Between Problem Solving and Story Making to Improve Cognition in the Workplace

This article explores our association with the environment and how it can impact our thinking skills through interaction. Thinking hands or increase your brain power by touching stuff! Use of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is included.

This was first written as a submission on a Masters course and will be rewritten to show practical application soon.

Written February 2019

Lay Conclusions

Working physically with our hands not only helps with learning but developed a deeper understanding and can lead to effective application. Interaction with the environment also developed faster problem-solving skills and builds team cognition.


Neurocentrism has for decades featured as the dominant explanation to human behaviour and experience. This view limits the explanation of behaviour and human experience to the perspective of the brain (Satel, & Lilienfeld, 2013). This view suggests that during problem-solving the interaction between agent and environment does not matter suggesting that only neural level explanation suffice (Satel, & Lilienfeld, 2013) This view has been challenged by other researchers who believe that cognition can be explained using a combination of interactivity perspective and the neural level perspective. For advocates of the interactivity perspective, action shapes the experience of thinking and creativity can be achieved through interactivity. These advocates have gone as far as designing models such as Lego® Serious Play® (LSP) methodology, a model of strategy-making, Cognitive Event Analysis, Systemic Model of Thinking (SysTM), to demonstrate the view that creativity can be achieved through interactivity rather than from neurocentrism. The advocates of interactivity suggest that organisations should embrace a hands-on, minds-on strategy to building better business practices.

Interactivity Perspective to Thinking

As advanced herein, several researchers have advocated interactivity rather that neurocentric approach to thinking (Cowley et al. 2017; Guthrie & Vallée-Tourangeau, 2018; Steffensen et al., 2016; Vallée-Tourangeau, 2018; Vallée-Tourangeau, 2014).

For example, Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) challenge neurocentrism, Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) instead suggest that systemic view of cognition should be approached from the interactivity perspective: action shaping the experience of thinking. In this way, Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) advance the claim that interactivity or sense-saturated coordination is the basis for elaborate cognitive skills namely human-computer interaction (HCI) and problem-solving. Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) also argue that interactivity elevates and transforms cognition by generating tightly woven scaffold of internal and external resources. Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) further opine that human agents manage multi-scalar dynamics by entwining bodies, brains and their surroundings. Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) demonstrates that scales of systemic perspective can be used to illustrate how bodies and artefacts can shape thinking.

Guthrie and Vallée-Tourangeau (2018) contend that the deleterious effect of maths anxiety on learners’ performance in arithmetic can be alleviated using interactive arithmetic tasks. This was demonstrated experimentally by examining the potential impact of interactivity on individuals with maths anxiety and individuals with poorer numeracy skills. Guthrie and Vallée-Tourangeau (2018) ran a within-subjects, counterbalanced set of experiments encompassing: activities in a high-interactivity condition and a low-interactivity condition. The former activities used the moveable number tokens while the latter completed the tasks with hands down. Result revealed differences in performance in the two conditions: participants in the high-interactivity condition were more accurate and more efficient than when performing in the low-interactivity condition. However, based on correlational analysis, working memory, measures of math expertise, objective numeracy, and maths anxiety were found to strongly predict performance in the low-interactivity condition than in the high-interactivity condition. Guthrie and Vallée-Tourangeau (2018) further noted that interactivity led to improvement in performance, transformed the deployment of arithmetic skills and minimised the gap between participants with low ability and those in high ability. In view of this finding, Guthrie and Vallée-Tourangeau (2018) concluded that it is necessary to take into account the extent of interactivity associated with task environment when creating psychometric efforts which are aimed at identifying cognitive dispositions and capacities.

In support of the interactivity argument, Vallée-Tourangeau (2014) takes the view advanced by others that interactivity plays a crucial role in cognition yet psychologies often pay indifferent and scant attention to it. For Vallée-Tourangeau (2014), solutions to issues and problem solving are an outcome of interactivity and the thinking outside the laboratory, which involves interacting with the external resources. Vallée-Tourangeau (2014) argues that in some cases, problems are brought out as diagrammatic images, static graphical images, riddles or presented with easily manipulated artefacts yet it some problems can be solved through interactivity but not others. Vallée-Tourangeau (2014) adds that the thinker is embedded in a physical environment as an embodied creature and that the materiality of artefacts and external resources via which problems are manifest, inevitably determines the afforded set of action. Vallée-Tourangeau (2014) argues that from the systemic point of view, thinking occurs along a spatiotemporal itinerary aided by interactivity and revealed in the changes in the outside world.

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Vallée-Tourangeau (2018) also supports others that the explanation of human behaviour and experience is not entirely limited to the perspective of the brain. Vallée-Tourangeau (2018) advances those insight problems are designed in the laboratory to create an impasse. However, Vallee-Tourangeau (2018) emphasises the role of the working memory and intelligence, as well as the coming up with the alternative interpretation of problems on the basis of heuristics and deliberate analysis, and the unconscious inferences in the cognitive processes.

Steffensen et al. (2016) support Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) and others that cognition should be approached from the interactivity perspective. Steffensen et al. (2016) see interactivity or problem solving as occurring in a web of interactions that involve artefacts and people. Steffensen et al. (2016) believe that this interactivity allows the person reasoning to comprehend the problem as emerging from an interaction between external and internal resources. Steffensen et al. (2016) further hold that fine-grained action or perception cycles make up this interactivity.

Methods That Foster Interactivity Or Hands-On, Minds-On Approach

Researchers have identified methods that can be used to foster interactivity or implement hands-on, minds-on approach to cognition (Hadida, 2013; Kristiansen, & Rasmussen, 2014; Vallée-Tourangeau & Vallée-Tourangeau, 2017; Steffensen et al., 2016). For example, in a viewpoint study, Hadida (2013) reflected on the personal experience and understanding of addressing core creativity and strategy challenges in organisations by employing Lego® Serious Play® (LSP) methodology. Hadida (2013) advanced that organisations can use an LSP methodology/approach/design to better understand the defining moments and core strategic challenges in teams and that this can be achieved using story-making, imagination, and metaphors. LSP entails posing a problem or a question that needs to be solved and allowing everyone to use LEGO to build a model or multiple models of their ideas.

Like Hadida (2013), Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) advocate the use of LSP Method-hands-on, minds-on approach- to build a better business. Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) argue that this method can afford organisations a creative approach to improving business performance and enhancing innovation. Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) contend that LSP unleashes exploratory and interactive behaviours that play stimulates and that this can be useful in developing business, relationships, people and teams. Again, Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) believe that LSP can synergise a play with strategy development, systems thinking and organisational development and ultimately foster innovation processes, better communication, team growth, and improve meetings. Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) further noted that LSP approach recognises the role and contribution of everyone in an organisation to outcomes and discussions and nurtures this idea.

Furthermore, through building with LEGO components, employees’ creativity and unique thought processes are triggered, and this unleashes the potential and imagination which are never tapped using the logical mind. Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) also argue that this hands-on, minds-on approach fosters honest and free exchange of opinions, facilitates the observation of external and internal interaction dynamics and encourages exploration by facilitating change. For Kristiansen and Rasmussen (2014) LSP approach is suitable for multinational corporations and start-ups that seek to maximise synergy throughout organisations and teams, and build a better business.

Roos, Victor, and Statler (2004) advanced the argument towards a hands-on and minds-on approach, a new model of strategy-making. This proposed new model emphasises the construct of strategic imagination encompassing three distinct yet interrelated kinds of imagination: challenging, creative, and descriptive. The proposed model borrows the concept of play from cognitive development (Fink, 1976) and anthropology and details the complex social dynamic process of strategy-making. The process of strategy-making as described by Roos, Victor, and Statler (2004) has three phases. Phase 1 entails constructing to stimulate new ideas. Phase two and three involve sharing meaning and deep engagement through storytelling with the aim of assimilating new directions.

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Taking a similar view to those supporting interactivity, Vallée-Tourangeau and Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) developed a systemic model of thinking (SysTM) that takes into account an agent’s higher cognitive operations, namely decision-making process, the solving of problems, and the making of inferences. In this SysTM model, Vallée-Tourangeau and Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) assumed that the cognitive process (i.e., thinking) takes place over time and space leading to a new cognitive event. In this way, SysTM presupposes that a new solution to the problem or new cognitive event emerges from cognitive interactivity. Within this context, Vallée-Tourangeau and Vallée-Tourangeau (2017) conceive cognitive interactivity as a meshed network of causations between the cognitive processing of an agent and the transformative endeavours applied to the immediate environment which collectively yield cognitive outcome. The assumption as reflected in the SysTM model is that the processing of information in thinking develops through a series of inductive and deductive processing loops. These loops are thought to yield new perceptual inputs through transformative actions that occur along the physical information layout. These loops are also thought to activate the processing loop that follows. These actions are arguably linked to the inaction of a mental action plan that occurs in the deductive loops. These actions are also thought to result from the affordances in inductive loops or action possibilities’ unplanned direct perception. LSP provides those involved with a physical feedback artefact, thus providing data for loop reinforcement or data to change. LSP has shown a rapid and stable vehicle for developing an understanding of concepts and sharing those ideas with others.

In an attempt to prove the argument that cognition should be approached from the interactivity perspective, Steffensen et al. (2016) introduced a Cognitive Event Analysis- a qualitative method that approaches the problem-solving from the ecological perspective. This approach is suitable for analysing the fine-grained interactivity occurring between the agent who solves the problem and the environment.

Potential Application in the Workplace

As demonstrated herein, working with one’s hands has been touted as the best strategy to unlock creativity at the workplace. The whole idea behind the thinking with one’s hand or using hands to create something is that parts of the brain that one cannot access through speaking and thinking can be activated. This way, through hands-on thinking, an individual can generate new ideas and processes and use neural connections to generate new perspectives and ideas faster.

Mastilak (2012) opined that working with hands is key to eliminating creativity chaos and achieving creativity in the workplace. Creativity chaos as described by Lindsey (2010) is a point where an individual is unsure whether what he/she is doing works. Working with hands can also help companies overcome the challenge of trying to foster increased creativity in the workplace. Hands-on work or LSP encourages workers at the workplace to build ideas and share them. This hands-on work also honours diverse thinking and allows everyone to harness their unique creativity. Coye (2009) further emphasises that hands-on work gives employees a way to externalise their thoughts. Thus enabling individuals and teams to build a model that they can demonstrate rather than try to explain ideas out of their hand.. In view of Snider (2009), workplaces can encourage hands-on working using LSP methodology to build models to explore issues. Furthermore, use these models to share concepts and ideas with others. The leader then utilises the shared ideas to add criteria or come to a consensus. The leader evaluates the options to determine one that best answers the challenge, solve the problem or help innovate on the new product. Roos (2006) also supports others that organisations should embrace a hands-on, minds-on strategy to building a better business. Roos (2006) argues that organisations should practice strategy in a way that engages our bodies and fuel our minds. According to Roos (2006), organisations should think strategy rather than “doing strategy”, because by thinking strategy managers would be engaging their senses in ways that is supported by pure intellectual reasoning. Roos (2006) opines that the way to think strategy is to transform strategy into responsible and imaginative practice and use senses to fuel imagination. In this paper, Roos (2006) further observes that imagination is intertwined with our senses as it about what we do, use, and think. The argument is that our sensory-motor system stimulates our abstract thinking and that our embodied and bodies’ interactions in the world, makes it possible and shapes what we understand and think. Roos (2006) adds that no autonomous faculty of reason is independent and separate from bodily capacities such as movement and perception, and that bodily capacities are the basis for reason (i.e., the evolutionary view). According to Roos (2006) hearing, seeing and other senses stimulate and enable our thinking and stimulate the development of new outcomes.

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This all appears to be confirmed by the work of Cowley & Vallée-Tourangeau (2017). Further research is required to expand the application of hand/cognition/ problem-solving into the worlds of education and business with a view to enhancing performance and reducing anxiety in many disciplines. From a judgement and decision-making perspective encouraging interaction in the workplace will increase productivity, creativity and improved communication and not just strategy development.


Thinking Beyond Your Brain: Understanding the Bridge Between Problem Solving and Story Making to Improve Cognition in the Workplace
Thinking Beyond Your Brain: Understanding the Bridge Between Problem Solving and Story Making to Improve Cognition in the Workplace


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Mike Morrison

View posts by Mike Morrison
Mike is a consultant and change agent specialising in developing skills in senior people to increase organizational performance. Mike is also founder & director of RapidBI, an organizational effectiveness consultancy. Check out his linkedin profile MikeMorrison LinkedIn Profile

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