By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
So you want to be a better creative thinker? Maybe you want to be more creative in solving problems at work, or you want to write a novel and you can’t get the plot down, or you want to learn how to write songs that people find unique and intriguing. We know a few things about how you can be more creative — for instance, if you happen to be a person who is open to new experiences (as rated by the Big-5 personality survey) we know that you are likely to have easy access to creative thinking in your work and play (Feist, 1998; Feist & Barron, 2003).
But what if you’re naturally open and you want to be even more creative? Or what if you’re not that open and still want to access your creative thinking without totally overhauling your personality? These are the questions we were after when we asked a group of new subscribers to the scientifically designed music service Focus@Will to perform a classic creative thinking task in two situations: 1) when they were listening to Focus@Will music, and 2) when they were listening to their own choice of music. Half of the 142 participants listened to Focus@Will first, and the other half listened to their own music first, and everyone first completed a personality assessment in silence.
The creativity task, which is called a “alternative uses” task (Torrance, 1972), asks people to write down as many creative uses for a mundane object that they can muster in a short period of time (here, we used a two-minute limit). We asked our participants to first do the task for a two-liter plastic bottle, and then in a second sitting a few days later, do the same task for a cardboard paper-towel tube. Half of the participants in the bottle task listened to Focus@Will and half listened to their own music, then they switched for the test with the paper-towel tube.
We asked two independent judges who were both productive composers to score the number and quality of alternative uses that each participant listed. They didn’t know which responses were influenced by listening to Focus@Will and which were influenced by listening to plain music. The quality judge was told to just rank from 0 to 10 the quality of the creative uses for the mundane object and to ignore the number of items, and the quantity judge was told to just count the number of items and ignore their quality.
What did we find? In terms of boosting creativity, Focus@Will hit the ball out of the park — or if you want a more creative metaphor — Focus@Will produced a giant explosion of guppies from the kitchen faucet. While listening to Focus@Will there was a clear trend for people to have longer lists of alternative uses — but the more important result is that the overall quality of creative thinking was independently ranked as significantly higher when people were listening to a Focus@Will channel of their choice, as compared to their own music (see figure). This effect was clear and dominated any other Focus@Will effect I’ve discussed in this series.
What’s more, it turns out that while all personalities, on average, got the benefit of this creativity boost, people who scored themselves as less open to new experiences showed the biggest gains. Those who were already open to experiences showed gains as well, just not as large (probably because they were already creative in their natural state).
What does this mean? There is something about Focus@Will that facilitates creative thinking. We don’t know exactly what it is, but my guess is that it’s the same thing that allows us Focus@Will listeners to feel more positive and more expansive, be more task focused, and access unconscious information that can help us make good decisions. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s that Focus@Will provides a consistent calming signal for our hypervigilant minds, calming our exogenous (external-oriented) attentional systems while keeping our endogenous (internal-oriented) ones occupied (for more on that idea, see this post).
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed and relaxing Focus Spa audio channel, one of many diverse focusing channels created by Focus@Will labs.
Summary: This is part five of a series of posts examining how the focus tool Focus@Will works, based on a recent series of experiments. In part one, I explored self-reported focus and described the evidence that the “focused feeling” you get with Focus@Will is actually real. In part two, I described the importance of task persistence and explain how Focus@Will supports persistence without reducing executive function. In part three, I talked about how your inner space (your thoughts and feelings) are affected by Focus@Will. In part four, I discussed the evidence that Focus@Will actually helps you use information from the future. And in this fifth and final post in the series, I describe one effect of Focus@Will on creative thinking.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and an upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.