Mar 112013

Psychological Distance:

Brilliantly simple way to boost your creativity



In this fascinating Scientific American article, the authors (Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman) tell us that creativity is not bound by the sole innate characteristics of an individual and can in fact be changed based on situation and context.

Consider this experiment: 2 groups of participants from the Indiana University were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. The first group was told that the task had been developed by Indiana University students studying in Greece and the second group was told instead that the task had been developed by Indiana University students studying in Indiana. The first group was able to generate more numerous and original modes of transportation that the second group.

How can such a minute detail have any significant influence on creativity?!

This phenomenon is referred as “Construal Level Theory (CLT) of Psychological Distance”, i.e. anything that we do not experience as occurring now and here. Attempting to take another person’s perspective or by thinking of a question as if it were unreal and unlikely, also fall in to that category of “psychological distant”.

According to CLT, psychological distance affects how we mentally represent things, where distant things are represented in an abstract way. Once classified as abstract (vs. concrete), it seems that the mind get an extra boost of creativity in solving or manipulating those abstract things.

Studies have also shown that projecting an event into the remote future can enhance creativity. In a series of experiments examining how temporal distance affects performance of insight and creativity tasks, participants were asked to imagine their lives a year later (distant future) or the next day (near future), and then to imagine working on a task on that day in the future. Once again, participants who imagined a distant future were more creative and insightful.

Finally, evidence shows that study participants were more successful at solving problems when they believe that they were unlikely to encounter the full task.

These findings have interesting practical implications. One can take simple steps to increase creativity by:

  • travelling (in person or just thinking about it) to faraway places,
  • envisioning distant future and
  • considering improbable alternatives to reality.

So, next time you are stuck on a problem that requires creativity, just picture yourself in a faraway place, in a far future, dreaming up of unlikely scenarios.

Now, if you do this in a shower, there will be no stopping you!

Questions/Comments? Use the “Enter your comment here…” box below.

Mar 082013


No, this issue is not about the (mostly) undeserved reputation some office dwellers have with poor hygiene. And BTW, the irony of a Frenchman talking about poor hygiene is not lost on me.

This post is about creativity and a very simple way to make you more creative,

In his recent book about creativity (Imagine, how creativity works) Jonah Lehrer introduces us to the work of Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. Bhattacharya uses EEGs to study how people come up with insight. He claims that the brain’s right hemisphere starts producing “alpha waves”. Amazingly, Bhattacharya has found that it’s possible to predict that a person will solve an insight puzzle up to eight seconds before the insight actually arrives and even before the person is even aware of the answer.
He even goes on to say that subjects with insufficient alpha-wave activity are unable to solve insight puzzles such as:

  • A man has married 20 women in a small town. All of the women are still alive and none of them are divorced. The man has broken no laws. Who is the man?
  • Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father, yet they are not twins. How is that possible?

How can you trigger those magic alpha waves, you wonder? They are in fact closely associated with relaxing activities – such as taking the aforementioned warm shower. A relaxed state of mind is crucial for creative thinking because that’s when our brain directs the spotlight of attention inward, toward the right hemisphere, the champion of remote associations.
In contrast, when focusing too much on a problem the attention tends to be directed outward, triggering the analytical mind which actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.

For many people, the shower is the most relaxing part of the day. It’s when you are gently massaging your scalp with shampoo (as directed on the bottle), unable to check your email, that you finally hear the quiet voices in the back of your heads whispering to you insights and great new innovative ideas.
Of course, taking a shower is not the only way to trigger that the state of relaxation with its associated alpha waves. Wallace J. Nichols, also a scientist, claims in an article (Get your blue mind on) that the sight and proximity of the ocean and its blue, relaxing vastness will also bring out that dose of relaxation.

Still skeptical? Why don’t you test yourself against these well-known RATS (Remote Associates Test) in various states of relaxation?

Once you have that great insight in the shower remembers Nolan Bushnell’s quote:

Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.

PS: After unsuccessfully trying to hyperlink Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine” book (mentioned earlier) with Amazon, I realized that Amazon pulled the book off its (virtual) shelves. And here’s the reason why.
That said, this post still stands because I’ve experienced the creative powers of a warm shower myself. So, even if some of Lehrer’s quotes were fabricated, I would still like to believe that the rest of the book is not a complete fabrication.
If you want to read the book, it’s still for sale just not with Amazon.

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