The Original Meaning of Social Distancing and Why Every Creative Should Know It

Distant thoughts can bring out great ideas

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Fig. 1: Molo Benchwall. Product designed by Stephanie Forsythe + Todd MacAllen. Vancouver, Canada. 2003. Photography by Molo.
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Fig. 2: A comparison of analytic and creative thinking. Illustration by the author.

Our Binary Brain

The narrative begins in the early 2000s, when several researchers began exploring the relationship between mental processing and perceptions of distance. Through experimentation they came to discover that how close or far we view ourselves to be relative to an object of our attention determines which of two cognitive styles we assume.

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Fig. 3: LEFT: Tractor in wheat field. Via pexels.com. RIGHT: Wheat field and tractor near Yankton, South Dakota. 2006. Photography by John Griebsch.

Spatial Distancing

A simple method for picturing the relationship between mindset and physical distance is to imagine yourself up in an airplane (Fig. 3, right). You’re flying over farm country and you look down. How would you describe the scene? One analogy that comes to mind is that of an abstract painting, the terrain having been transformed into broad swaths of color, texture, light and shade.

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Fig. 4: Houston skyline. Photography by Mabry Campbell. Via flickr.
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Fig. 5: TOP: Living area and deck. Berkeley, California. Architecture by YAMAMAR Design. Photography by Bruce Damonte. MIDDLE: Living area. Tel Aviv–Yafo, Israel. Architecture by Pitsou Kedem Architects. Photography by Amit Geron. BOTTOM: Library. Abbotsford House, home of Sir Walter Scott. William Atkinson, Architect. Melrose, United Kingdom. Photography by Michael D. Beckwith.

Temporal Distancing

Geographic proximity is just one distancing metric. Time is another.

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Fig. 6: Vintage travel poster illustrating the Bay of Castella in Athens. Published by the Greek National Tourism Office in 1955. Artist unknown.

Social Distancing

Which brings us to the original story of social distancing, and how its current incarnation diverges from the earlier version.

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Fig. 7: Portrait of the artist as a clothes horse: author Tom Wolfe at home. Via The Wall Street Journal.
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Fig. 8: LEFT: Berkeley, California. Architecture by YAMAMAR Design. Photography by Bruce Damonte. CENTER: Austin, Texas. Architecture and interior design by Tim Cuppett Architects. Photography by Alec Hemer. RIGHT: Frank Lloyd Wright and disciples at Taliesin West. Scottsdale, Arizona. 1951. Architecture and interior design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photography by Ezra Stoller.

Bringing It All Together: Construal Level Theory

With so much experimental evidence linking cognitive style to perceptions of spatial, temporal, and social distance, you would think somebody would have come up with an overarching theory to tie them together.

Author of MY CREATIVE SPACE: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, 48 Science-based Techniques. Get it on Amazon amzn.to/2WfABoB

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