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Forcing Your Brain to See the Same Thing Differently

A sucker for word games and puzzles, I’ve noticed a recurring feature in some digital versions of my favorites. Take a word scramble. I’m talking the kind of thing where they list, for example, U.S. states with the letters mixed up. Alaska becomes SLAAAK. Montana, OAANNMT. There seems to be an option in these games where you can click a button and rearrange the letters.

Instead of seeing Alaska as SLAAAK, they’ll represent that information to you as AKALAS. Montana shuffles to TANOMAN. They’re not changing anything. Both of those jumbles still solve to Alaska and Montana. But they’re forcing you to see it differently.

It’s the same information, just moved around a little. Flipped on its head. Rearranged.

Sometimes, when I’m making a big decision, I’ll make a list of pros and cons. Sometimes, I’ll try to imagine my life in a year with or without the decision. Or five years. Or more. Sometimes, I’ll talk it through with a trusted loved one. Sometimes, I’ll think about what choice I’ll regret more.

All of these are ways of hitting shuffle. Of switching up the information I know. Of forcing my brain to see the same thing I've been looking at from a different angle.

Earlier this summer, I was sitting on the floor of a rented cabin in Virginia with two friends and our partners. As we caught up, I was absentmindedly sorting puzzle pieces onto the coffee table from a box I’d found on the fireplace. I had edges on one side but for the life of me could not find a single corner piece.

Finally, I relented. Well, y’all. Looks like we’re not doing the puzzle this weekend after all. I figured it might be missing some pieces but there’s literally no corners so I don’t even know where to begin.

Attention fluttered to my fruitless effort. Gently, patiently, a friend spoke, That’s because it’s a circle-shaped puzzle.

Oh, how our brains sometimes need a step back. How fixated I was on a rectangular puzzle. How fixated we can get on our one understanding of a thing.

What if we had a button to jumble it up? To forget what we know about puzzles. To forget what we know about the situation. To mix up our facts and opinions and preconceived notions and force ourselves to see what is actually in front of us.

To give ourselves the opportunity to see something for the first time. With fresh eyes and open minds. To know that the best way to get there is sometimes through a little stirring. To not be afraid to hit shuffle.


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