I’ve been looking at some interesting experiments run by Spacebase, an online booking platform for meeting and workshop spaces that serve as alternatives to traditional hotel meeting rooms. Because of the business they’re in, Spacebase is curious about what makes meetings less or more creative. They ran three simple experiments, got some clear results, and then provided some hypotheses as to why they got the results they saw. Indeed, I agree with their results—they are what I would have expected to see. And looking at their first experiment, an additional hypothesis came to mind as to why they got the results they got.
Here’s how Erin Westover, Spacebase’s International Strategic Partnerships Director for Europe and North America and Creative Director for the ExperiMENTAL project, described their experiments:
“Because Spacebase focuses on providing companies with inspiring and productive environments around the world, we set out on a mission to find the best ways to boost your creativity; thus ExperiMENTAL was born. During the making of this web series, we took 7 groups of complete strangers and gave them each a stimulus to interact with. When they finished their activity, we measured their creative output with standardized creativity tests. Our participants were exposed to a TV-watching session, an exercise class, an unproductive meeting, an interactive meeting, cards against humanity, and copious amounts of alcohol. The results were surprising, interesting, and absolutely hilarious.”
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In their first experiment, several folks watched an hour-long Netflix session and several other folks engaged in a high impact Zumba fitness class. Directly after these activities, the two groups engaged in some standardized creativity tests in which the Zumba group performed much better than the Netflix group (with raw scores of 54 “creative solutions” to a task for the Zumba group versus 21 “creative solutions” for the Netflix group).
Interestingly, when interviewed afterwards, the two groups explained their results as having to do with the group interaction: the Zumba group felt that exercising “broke down barriers,” “was a great ice breaker,” “promoted group unity,” and in other group-related ways allowed them to feel “safe enough” to share their creative ideas. On the other hand, the Netflix group tended to feel that the Netflix-watching was an isolating experience and that “their group never came together.”
However, I think the answer may be more the following one, about how neurons are grabbed and how neurons are released. In that dreamy, non-thinking state that certain kinds of repetitive activities promote, neurons let go of each other and become available for creative thinking. What sorts of non-thinking repetitive activities promote this loosening of neuronal gripping? The mystery writer Agatha Christie explained that all the plots of her mystery novels came to her while she was washing the dishes. The painter Grant Wood similarly explained that the images for his paintings came to him while he milked the cows. Activities of this sort—exercise being one of them—free up neurons for creative use.
The folks involved in the experiment presumed that they performed more creatively because of the group interaction, because, that is, they all exercised “together.” My hunch is that the difference in results reflected how each individual in the two groups was affected by the task and not by the group interaction. The Netflix watching mesmerized those individuals and put them in that television trance where all of their neurons were grabbed by the show. Their neurons were still hooked together when they finished watching and remained relatively unavailable for the creativity tasks that followed. By contrast, subjects in the Zumba group engaged in something—in this case, exercise—that let their neurons relax and become available for creative thinking.
There’s a reason that excellent thinkers have, for example, gone for long walks in order to sort out their thoughts and in order to solve their creative and intellectual problems. You could set your watch by Nietzsche’s daily walks; Beethoven often left his piano students in the lurch and strode off into the woods so as to create music. Dreamy, meditative activities like walking, milking a cow, or doing the dishes release the grip of neurons and free up neurons for thinking. By contrast, activities that grab neurons—like, for instance, trying to stay attentive through a dense PowerPoint presentation—do the exact opposite.
Experiments like the ones that Spacebase ran are interesting and valuable. They may not be scientifically rigorous, nor are they meant to be; but they quite likely provide just as interesting results as their more rigorous academic counterparts. So: Zumba or Netflix? I don’t think the jury needs to deliberate for very long. Zumba it is!
Eric Maisel is the author of 50+ books. Visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com.