Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A sugar pill for creativity

Following hard on the heels of a post about the possibility of creativity existing in a machine (and how we could tell if it did), today we look at recent research from the Weizmann Institute of Science (of Rehovot, Israel) showing that your creativity can be increased...

... by a placebo.

In a paper released last month, neuroscientists Liron Rozenkrantz, Avraham E. Mayo, Tomer Ilan, Yuval Hart, Lior Noy, and Uri Alon used three standard measures of creativity -- the creative foraging game, alternate uses test, and Torrance test of creative thinking -- to see if subjects' creativity levels improved if they were given a vial of a cinnamon-scented liquid to sniff beforehand.  The interesting thing is that the aromatic chemical in the liquid isn't neuroactive, but some of the test subjects' creativity improved anyhow.

As long as they were told ahead of time that's the effect it would have.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The authors write:
Creativity is the ability to generate ideas, solutions or insights that are new and potentially useful.  Creativity is often viewed as a trait characteristic of a person; however, creativity can also be viewed as a state, affected by expectation and motivation...  
We find that placebo can enhance the originality aspect of creativity...  What are the psychological mechanisms that allow placebo to increase the originality aspect of creativity?  There are at least two possibilities. The first mechanism is based on extensive research by Amabile and Deci and Ryan, that suggests that creativity is modulated by motivation.  Extrinsic motivators were shown to be mostly detrimental to creativity, whereas intrinsic motivation is conductive to and strongly associated with creative abilities.  A key factor in intrinsic motivation, according to self-determination theory, is the belief in one’s competence.  For example subjects who practiced encouraging statements (related to self-confidence, releasing anxieties etc.) and omitted self-incapacitating statements showed improved creativity scores.  This is in line with the verbal suggestion in our study that the odorant increases creativity, which may have made subjects feel more competent.  Additional components of intrinsic motivation, such as social relatedness, may also have been increased by experimenter effects in the present study, by the experimenter’s perceived interest in the effects of the odorant. 
A second possible psychological mechanism of placebo, as suggested by Weger et al., is to weaken inhibitory mechanisms that normally impair performance.  Creativity was found to increase in several studies that tested conditions with reduced inhibitions, such as alcohol consumption.  Wieth and Zacks showed that creative problem solving was improved when participants were tested during non-optimal times of day, and suggested that this is due to reduced inhibitory control... This effect was suggested to be in line with paradoxical functional facilitation theory, which attributes improved performance of damaged nervous system to release from inhibition. Informal notions in improvisation theatre suggest that the inner critic is a source of inhibition that limits creativity.  The verbal suggestion made in our study that the odorant increases creativity and reduces inhibitions may thus work through a reduced-inhibition mechanism and/or by increasing belief in one’s competence.
So this suggests that there are two outcomes, here:
  • Anything that works to increase your confidence in your own creativity will improve your ability.  This undoubtedly varies greatly from person to person, but it does make me wonder if all of the happy-talk "self-affirmation" stuff, which I had previously derided as pop psychology, might not have something to it.
  • Ernest Hemingway may have been right when he said, "Write drunk, edit sober."
I can say from my own experience that frustration is the thing that kills my creativity the fastest.  Whether with music or writing (my two main creative outlets), if I start becoming frustrated with my skill, output, or proficiency, all it serves is to get in my way and make things worse.  I used to grit my teeth and try to plow through it, but I learned that this only tightened the downward spiral -- once frustration has set in, every fumbled note, every clumsy sentence, only serves to further shut me down.  The only solution was to leave the instrument or the keyboard behind -- not easy to do for a tightly-wound type-A personality like myself -- and do something completely different, preferably something active like going running.

Afterwards, it was amazing how the cogs had been loosened and the cobwebs blown away.  With writer's block, I often found that it was while I was running that the solution to whatever plot point I was wrestling with suddenly came to me, seemingly out of nowhere.  The research by Rosenkrantz et al. suggests that the loss of inhibition and cessation of negative self-talk from switching gears entirely might have been what shook the ideas free.

In any case, it's fascinating to find how malleable our minds are, how amenable to suggestion.  It also brings to mind the 2010 study that found that placebos work even when subjects know they're being given a placebo -- and makes me wonder if I should take a good whiff of cinnamon before I next sit down to write.

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