How Our Senses Influence Creativity

Tickling the senses can lead to greater creativity.

Posted Aug 15, 2011

Beyond your personality, however, situational factors also play a crucial role in what kind of processing style you will have on a moment-to-moment basis. Throughout the day, situational factors are constantly shifting your processing style without your awareness. Psychologists have identified lots of ways this operates. For instance, people are more likely to have a global processing style when they are feeling sad or thinking about the distant future. People are even more likely to have a global processing style when they are thinking of love rather than sex!

Most of these prior studies, however, have focused on the visual modality, having people read and imagine scenarios. Could the same effects operates across all of our sensory modalities? It's certainly possible. There exists a growing literature in social psychology on embodiment. Such research demonstrates strong links between perception and cognition. For instance, research has found that the concept of power is related to vertical spatial positions: powerful groups and powerful animals were identified more quickly when they were at the top of the screen, whereas there was no effect for powerless groups and animals. Another study found that when participants held a heavy (vs. light) clipboard, they invested more cognitive effort in dealing with abstract issues, such as displaying more elaborate thinking.

To test whether such embodiment effects can influence cognitive processing style, across 12 studies Jens Forster and Markus Denzler explored the effect of global or local unconscious "priming" on cognition across all five sensory modalities: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. In each study, participants were given two tasks. In the first task, participants were asked to evaluate or recognize something, whether it be a poem or aromas. This first task served to subconsciously prime participants to either have a global or local processing style.

Afterwords, participants were asked to do an "unrelated" task, which was either a categorization, creativity, or analytical cognitive task. The categorization task required participants to rate the goodness-of-fit of a variety of category names (e.g., furniture, vegetable) to their respective category. For the analytic task, participants completed logic problems from the analytical reasoning section of the GRE. For the creative task, participants were asked to come up with the most creative caption for a cartoon of a dog sitting on a sofa. Creative responses were then judged by a panel of four experts.

As it turned out, the unconscious priming affected cognition. In terms of the categorization test, global processing enhanced the acceptance of atypical category members relative to control groups, whereas local processing reduced such acceptance. Creativity was enhanced in the global processing conditions and reduced in the local processing conditions relative to the control group. For analytical thinking performance, the opposite was found: local processing enhanced analytical performance, whereas global processing reduced it. Most interestingly, these findings held up across all the sensory modalities! None of their findings appeared to be caused by different mood states or motivation.

These results are fascinating, and suggest that the way we watch, touch, taste, listen, or smell affects our analytical thought, creativity, and categorization automatically, and without our conscious awareness. There are many practical implications of these findings. The results suggest that people and objects in the real world may unconsciously affect our cognition by triggering a global or local processing style. Even differences in the composition of food and aromas may make a difference! This subconscious influence then triggers different systems (holistic or detail-oriented) that process information in fundamentally different ways.

The study also highlights the fact that neither global nor local processing is absolutely the best in all situations. For instance, global processing may be conducive to creativity, but it can also lead to stereotyping of people when they fail to notice the individual details of others. Local processing may not be helpful during the idea generation stage of a creative task, but may be helpful during the elaboration and refinement stage.

So next time you want to be creative, look around you and take note of your environment. Look at what you're eating. If you're only eating frosted flakes, add some crunchy oats. This combination may allow you to soar to new creative heights!

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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