Thinking outside the box is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective, as defined in Wikipedia. There are several great quotes from famous scientists relevant to this. Three of my favorites are:
“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought” (Albert Szent-Gyorgyi)
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." (Albert Einstein)
"The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them." (Sir William H. Bragg)
When thinking about this question [Editor’s Note: we prompted Dr. Balla with What does “thinking outside the box” mean to you in relation to research, career development, and mentoring?], most people feel that something special is required such as great talent and creativity. My experience is that while those traits are certainly very important (and probably separate the real geniuses from the rest of us), it is an issue that comes up every day and determines how we all approach science.
So, why is it so difficult to think outside the box, when we all recognize its importance and have a desire to do it? I think the reason is that our brain needs solid points of reference when organizing new information and forming new ideas. These solid points are based on the existing scientific literature and the generally accepted views that are built upon them. It is extremely difficult for us to deviate from these “axioms” because when we try to discount them, we have very little to lean on. Moreover, how do we know which dogma to be challenged? We might throw out the ones that are correct and should be kept.
For most scientists, it is hard to float experimental findings in their brains without organizing them into some logical pattern. However, while our findings might be correct, the “logical” conclusions drawn from them may be wrong, and if so, building on them will take us in the wrong direction.
I always encourage my colleagues to read papers by focusing on the data and see what conclusions they would make before even looking at the authors’ conclusions. Unfortunately, many papers are written in such a way that the reader is led through complicated results following the authors’ logic. In other words, the reader is led into the “box” that the authors have created. It takes an effort to digest a paper without this “help” and to simply stay with the data and reach our own conclusions.
So, thinking outside the box requires us to give up something that we think we already possess (a certain amount of widely accepted knowledge) without knowing whether this will help us gain something more valuable or whether we will be rewarded for it. This feels like walking away from our stated goals in order to reach them. I often liken this to a large crossword puzzle that someone has started to solve and we have to take over to complete it. Some words could be wrong but we are not sure which ones (if any). Yet, if we stick to the already written ones, we may never be able to solve the whole puzzle because we would need to correct the incorrect ones. We have to constantly scrutinize and be ready to change what is already written in order to have a chance to complete the whole puzzle. And here comes the responsibility of scientists regarding generating reliable data. The data should always be solid even if the conclusions drawn from them have to change as science advances.
Unfortunately, the quest of publishing in top journals often favors the kind of science where one wants to prove the hypothesis and is satisfied with the minimal results that support it. When one experiment “does not work” then it is either put aside or is repeated until the “right results” are obtained that fit with the hypothesis. This may be a good recipe to generate great stories that look like great science, but increasingly it is a frustrating trend that often contaminates the scientific literature. With such practices, our metaphorical crossword puzzle will have more and more incorrect words and it will be increasingly difficult to solve the grand puzzle since these publications receive even larger weights than others that are published in lesser journals.
In my view, the right way to do science is to repeatedly challenge our hypothesis with the intent to disprove it rather than prove it. If the hypothesis stands several rounds of scrutiny and it still stands, it might be correct. When unexpected results show up, we should welcome them instead of mourning the loss of our hypothesis. In fact, the unexplainable results present us with the opportunity to dare ask whether the existing dogmas are as certain as we believe they are, or even the initial assumptions have to be reevaluated. This is the chance to step outside the box.
How does mentoring come into this picture? Julie Axelrod once said that if you want to enter a new field of science, the best thing you could do is not read the existing literature. Of course, as clever as it sounds, this wisdom is only half-true. If you do not know the literature, you will find yourself repeating many experiments that have been done before. The challenge remains being aware of the literature, while not being “boxed in” by it. In my opinion, it is the job of the mentor to know the literature and the existing scientific views while levering the student’s unbiased eye to challenge every conclusion.
A good mentor tries not to make the student think the same way as he/she does. The student should be the fresh eye that will help the mentor climb out of the box. This is why mentoring and working with younger colleagues is so essential to the progress of science.
Some people can think outside the box on their own, but most of us need help to do so. In the lab, we often play the mental exercise asking: what would be the logical experiment based on the knowledge that is available for all scientists that work in our fields. That is the experiment we should not do. First, because most likely someone else is already doing it, but more importantly, because that may not necessarily give us a new insight. We want to look at the problem from an angle that others may not think about. Difficult, indeed. I am not sure I will ever get myself outside the box. But we sure keep trying, and together with the help of my fellows and students, we still might have a shot.