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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

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How Our Senses Influence Creativity

Posted: 08/24/11 09:39 AM ET

Do you focus on the forest or the trees? Whether you have more of a global (holistic) or local (detail-oriented) processing style influences how you fundamentally perceive the world, and it is one of the most prominent factors influencing creative thought.

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 operate 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.

Afterward, 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 analytical task, participants completed logic problems from the analytical reasoning section of the GRE.
  • For the creativity 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.

In one of their studies, they looked at priming through the sensory modality of taste by having participants examine the quality of different breakfast cereals.

  • In the global condition, participants were given a mouthful of cereal containing a mixture of the four different kinds of cereals (corn flakes, honey pops, raisins and crunchy oats).
  • In the local condition, participants were presented with four small separate bowls, each one containing different ingredients.
  • They also had a control condition, in which participants had to eat two bowls of mixes and two bowls with raisins and crunchy oats in random order.

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 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 it may be helpful during the elaboration and refinement stage.

How much conscious control do we have over these effects? It's possible to think of ways we can take control over these subconscious influences. For instance, if you want to be really creative while working, you may not want to choose a song that contains many interruptions and breaks, as this may activate our detail-oriented processing system. This area is ripe for future psychological investigation.

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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