The Frontal Cortex

Designing for Creativity

Over at Mind Matters, we’ve just posted a very interesting article on creativity and distance, or why thinking something is farther away makes us more likely to solve difficult problems that require original answers:

According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person’s perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.

Why does psychological distance increase creativity? According to CLT, psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete. Consider, for instance, a corn plant. A concrete representation would refer to the shape, color, taste, and smell of the plant, and connect the item to its most common use – a food product. An abstract representation, on the other hand, might refer to the corn plant as a source of energy or as a fast growing plant. These more abstract thoughts might lead us to contemplate other, less common uses for corn, such as a source for ethanol, or to use the plant to create mazes for children. What this example demonstrates is how abstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, such as fast growing plants (corn) and fuel for cars (ethanol).

If you combine this latest study with this recent experiment (and maybe this one, too), it’s possible to begin designing the ideal creative workspace: a room with blue walls that feels very far away and is filled with references to foreign countries.


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    July 22, 2009

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  2. #2 Roblin
    July 22, 2009

    I suppose this study makes a character like MacGyver all the more interesting (or, perhaps, more fictional).

  3. #3 royniles
    July 22, 2009

    My somewhat educated guess would be that we approach all problems relative to our conception of their short and long term bases and automatically adjust the level of our abstract thought processes accordingly. I don’t think it’s a question of abstract versus more non-abstract thinking as I and many others see all our thinking as abstract on a scale of different levels. Some levels are determined by imminence and some simply by the limits of our individual capacities.
    I expect that if we deliberately choose to see a problem as long term, our level of approach will automatically shift to one of the the appropriate abstraction.

  4. #4 teiana
    July 22, 2009

    at last! a use for my poster of a composite picture of ‘the world from space’. I always *knew* it would come in useful, eventually.


  5. #5 Stephanie
    July 22, 2009

    Your example of corn made me think of the Myers-Briggs indicator test; specifically the sensing vs. intuition factor. I recall a class where students who scored as a S were asked to describe an apple. Results were typically ‘red, round, green etc..’ whereas N students gave answers like ‘harvest, plenty, crops, fall.’ This theory of CLT supposes a certain amount of plasticity (which I completely agree with), and I wonder if the Myers-Briggs test was given in different situation if the same person would get differing results…

  6. #6 Ian Leslie
    July 24, 2009

    Silence, EXILE, cunning…

  7. #7 jb
    July 26, 2009

    The ideal creative workspace is a meditation cushion where one cultivates a relaxed mind and body, a distance from thoughts and a way of disconnecting with them when they arise, and enough gaps between thoughts so that the answers to the questions one has asked can arise. ( A preferred kind of thought). This sort of situation and technique is necessary to get away from the default mode network way of thinking with its self-referencing.

    Once this more vacant, dispassionate state of mind becomes a habit on the cushion, you can take your creative workspace, ie your mind, anywhere. You will find the answers to dilemmas will arise when loading the dishwasher, going for a walk or taking a shower.

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