Want To Improve Creativity? Turn Off The Lights!

Two researchers from Germany have just published their findings on the relationship between creativity and light.

Driven by a desire to see how much the physical environment effects are creative efforts, they created six different experiments which explored how darkness can impact the innovative efforts of university students.

Their first three experiments were simple priming exercises (when the researcher makes the participants simply think of darkness or light, often using sub-conscious word games), and the next three experiments were in controlled rooms where the lighting could be altered. In each, the students were asked to complete different exercises, that measured their ability to generate new, novel and surprising ideas, as well as testing them on speed and accuracy.

The results were very interesting. Students in the dimly lit room did much worse on the analytical tasks (involving logical, left brain thinking) - doing almost 30% worse than students in the well lit and control room experiment.

But in the creativity exercises, students in the dimly lit room more than compensated for their lack in the analytical experiment, generating 50% more creative answers than students in either of the rooms! (For those who are a bit skeptical, there are several professional measures of creativity that were employed in this study, that are accepted globally in academic and corporate settings).

Why did the light make such a difference?

The authors suggest that darkness promotes freedom from constraints and the desire to explore - in effect, saying that when we are in the dark, we feel more comfortable to dream new ideas without self-limiting them.

This is true in many of our lives - how often have you been lying in the dark at night, and dreamt up a new idea that would never have occurred in day time?

One of the biggest limitations on creativity is fear - especially fear of what others may think. Sometimes even just seeing others in our surrounding can induce that fear, meaning that our creative cognitive processing gets limited. By simply turning out the lights, this fear was reduced and the creative outcomes were dramatically increased.

I'm not suggesting that you turn off the lights at your organisation and insist everyone work in the dark - but this does have interesting implications for the creative process. Experiments such as this lend support to practices such as "Idea Walks" - encouraging others to go for a walk and dream about creative solutions to a problem - rather than the traditional brain-storming method, where everyone sits in a room and attempts to generate ideas.

What are some ways that these findings could be incorporated into your creative process?