This is Episode 18 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Can psychology help us become more creative? Our presenter Ginny Smith learns how we can develop our creativity with practice, and discovers that our best “Eureka” moments often come when we step away from the task at hand. She also investigates how members of the public fare with the riddles psychologists use to study creative problem solving — see how you get on at home.
“Microdosing” psychedelic drugs involves regularly taking amounts so tiny that they don’t impair a person’s normal functioning, but — it’s claimed — subtly enhance wellbeing, concentration and creativity. In May, for example, the Digest reported on a study that found hints of reduced stress and increased emotional intensity among people who microdosed LSD and psilocybin, from ‘magic’ mushrooms.
However, we also stressed that there has been little research into the technique — and now a review of the field published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology concludes that while the popularity of microdosing has exploded over the past eight years, knowledge about what it actually does remains patchy and anecdotal. In fact, there are still far more questions about the technique than answers, write Kim Kuypers at Maastricht University, and her colleagues.
It usually helps to “get a fresh pair of eyes” on a problem, especially from someone with a different perspective than your own. But what if you could find a variety of vantage points from within yourself? After all, each of us has multiple roles and identities in life. In a new paper in Developmental Science, a team led by Sarah Gaither at Duke University presents evidence that prompting children to think about their own multiple identities boosts their problem-solving skills and increases their flexible thinking.
“Someone can be a woman and White, a teacher and a parent, a girl and a friend,” the researchers write. “Although individuals may not automatically reflect on their multiple identities, here we propose that when they do, it may have positive consequences for their creative problem solving and flexible thinking.”
What if you could take a psychedelic drug regularly in such tiny quantities that the immediate effects were not discernible, yet over time it led to a range of psychological benefits, especially enhanced focus and heightened creativity? That’s the principle behind “microdosing” – a controversial technique that’s exploded in popularity ever since the publication of a 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorers Guide and a 2015 Rolling Stone article titled How LSD Microdosing Became The Hot New Business Trip. Large online communities of microdosing enthusiasts have since emerged on sites like Reddit, where dosing tips are shared and the supposed manifold benefits of the practice are espoused.
However, actual scientific investigations into the effects of microdosing can be counted on one hand. Earlier this year, PLOS One published one of the few systematic investigations ever conducted into the practice, by Vince Polito and Richard Stevenson at Macquarie University. Though exploratory and tentative due to “legal and bureaucratic” obstacles (meaning there was no placebo control or randomisation in this research), the results suggest that microdosing can be beneficial, although not in the ways that users most expect, and not necessarily for everyone.
Imagination is sometimes claimed to be a uniquely human ability, and it has long intrigued psychologists. “Nevertheless, our understanding of the benefits and risks that individual differences in imagination hold for psychological outcomes is currently limited,” note two researchers who have created a new psychometric test – the Imaginative Behaviour Engagement Scale (IBES) – for measuring how much imagination a person has, and then used it to investigate whether, as some earlier work hinted, having a stronger imagination might aid learning and creativity.
Focus and concentration, while normally considered beneficial attributes, can stymie creativity – especially the generation of novel ideas. This has led some to wonder whether people with “leaky attention“, and especially those with ADHD – who have what Holly White, writing recently in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, calls “chaotic minds” – might have a creative advantage when it comes to breaking free from prior examples. White, who is based at the University of Michigan, has tested this possibility, and though she acknowledges her new study is small, she believes her findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that “ADHD may be advantageous for certain types of creative thinking; specifically, divergent, unconstrained creative cognition.”
A study in the journal Food Quality and Preference suggests that tea-drinking benefits divergent thinking, a key element of creativity that’s associated with generating ideas or identifying patterns. The researchers from Peking University greeted their initial 50 student participants with a cup of either hot water or black Lipton tea, before asking them to use children’s building blocks to make the most attractive design they could. Independent raters, blind to the study purpose and condition, rated the tea-drinkers designs as more creative, in terms of factors like aesthetic appeal, innovativeness and grandness.
In a second study, 40 more participants proposed names for a ramen noodle shop, and judges considered the names produced by tea-drinkers to be more innovative (but no more playful).
Tea drinking has already been tied to enhanced convergent thinking – coming up with the single correct answer to a problem – but the researchers claim theirs is the first study to find a relationship with more open, explorative thinking. The reasons for the effect aren’t clear: no significant improvement in arousal or positive mood was observed in the tea drinkers, nor did the participants prepare tea themselves, a ritual that some have speculated could help shift mindset. It’s possible that the effect is simply due to relaxation – so why not sit back and enjoy a brew with your next brainstorm.
There’s a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative. But is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?
Scientific attempts to resolve this question, which have mainly focused on disorders of mood, have so far struggled to reach a definitive answer. However, in a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Christa Taylor of Albany State University has applied surgical precision to open up the existing body of research and lay out what we currently know.
What kind of parents produce creative children? Aside from the clear and substantial influence of the genes they pass on, evidence suggests that parents can also influence their children’s creativity through providing encouragement and the right environment. To understand what kind of parents are more inclined to take these steps, a new study in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity investigates the links between mothers’ personality and how much they cultivate for their child a ”climate of creativity”.
In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth authored a paper on a trait she called “grit” which went on to arrest the attention of anyone interested in the secrets of success. TED talks and a 2016 book followed, wherein Duckworth explained how a combination of passion for a topic, and perseverance in the face of difficulties – the two facets of grit – were the recipe for achievement, a claim borne out by studies within schools and across the lifespan.
In recent years, however, researchers have become more critical of the scope and relevance of the concept. Now an article published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, suggests grit gives surprisingly little insight into the world of creative success.