Some kids build cars, planes, or buildings with their LEGO sets. Others stack them randomly and hope you'll call it art. But thanks to the work of designer Carlos Arturo Torres Tovar, kids in Colombia may soon be building their own prosthetics.

The idea itself is a fascinating example of creative problem-solving using readily available resources. More than this, Tovar's work is a manifestation of what psychologists have known for years: LEGO and LEGO-like activities have the power to heal your emotions, too. 

Reported with superb detail by Jenn Choi in Quartz, Tovar's idea had many influences. Chief among them were his coursework at the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden; his internship at LEGO Future Lab in Denmark; and knowledge of life in his home country, Colombia, where 5,400 kids a year lose their limbs because of armed conflict or accidents, Choi reports. 

While interning at LEGO, Tovar saw people who built arms and legs using the globally popular brand of building blocks. But the tipping point of his idea--when it moved from idea to action--came two years ago, after he watched the video of a woman who'd built herself a leg using LEGO:

 

"He knew that the leg was not functional," Choi writes, "but he remembered what his psychologist friends said of children with limb loss in Colombia." What they told him was nuanced. Mainly, it was that even functional prosthetics don't address the social and emotional challenges kids face when they need prosthetics. Or when they finally get one. 

Tovar realized LEGO prosthetics could address this social, emotional aspect of what kids have to deal with. "When you assemble a LEGO set, you assemble it with your parents or your friends or you even make new friends with them," he told Choi.

The social component of playing with LEGO is not the only aspect of its power to heal. Academic research has shown that manipulating shapes and colors can help you recover from negative emotions, too.

For example, Oxford professor Emily Holmes has discovered that if you play a repetitive, absorbing game like Tetris within six hours of viewing something disturbing, it will reduce the emotional weight of the memory. It will also reduce the occurrence of an unbidden flashback to the event. "This has implications for a novel avenue of preventative treatment development, much-needed as a crisis intervention for the aftermath of traumatic events," she writes in the journal PLOS ONE.

Why does Tetris work? "The part of your brain responsible for emotional encoding is too busy watching falling blocks and trying to figure out where to put the crazy Z shape," explains sociologist Margee Kerr, an expert in fear and recovery who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, in her new book, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.

And if you don't have access to Tetris, there are plenty of alternatives. Including LEGO. Or Minecraft. Or old-school jigsaw puzzles. "With Tetris, it's both the focusing on color and the spatial relations," says Kerr. "So any game involving that kind of manipulation can work," she says.  

It would be one thing if Tovar's idea soared only on the basis of its social and emotional benefits. But as it turns out, there are also fiscal reasons using LEGO to build prosthetics makes sense. Studies show that the lifetime cost of prosthetics can range from $40,000 to $800,000, Choi reports.

By contrast, Tovar estimates his potential solution will cost about $5,000, with a recurring $1,500 fee for a 3D printed socket that growing children would need to replace annually. 

Tovar's work is still in progress. But by December 2015, 10 children in Colombia are slated to receive prototypes of his design, which is called the IKO Creative Prosthetic System, Choi notes. "The IKO may possibly change how we see these high-tech prosthetics today," she writes. "Or perhaps we'll see that the only real superpower that these prosthetics have is not to make someone superhuman, but rather it's to make all of us a bit more humane."

Published on: Oct 22, 2015