john lennon, yoko ono, john lennon yoko ono
John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono, during an interview in London on Feb. 9, 1970.

Real Love Inspires Creativity

September 08, 2009 02:30 PM
by Shannon Firth
A new study from the University of Amsterdam shows that romantic love heightens creativity, while lust improves logical thinking. Though experts note there are ways to summon one’s creative energies, even without a muse.

Love Inspires, as Does Distance

Dutch researchers, led by Dr. Jens Forster, asked student subjects to envision “a romantic walk” with the person they loved, or a sexual encounter with someone they found attractive but didn’t love. They then assessed the students’ performance on four logic puzzles, and three problem-solving tasks that required more creative thought.

Subjects who imagined the romantic walk performed better on tests of creativity, compared to the group that thought about sex and a control group told to imagine taking walks alone. On measures of logic drawn from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the group that reflected on the casual sexual encounter outperformed both groups.

“People process information in two fundamentally different ways: They focus on the forest, or they focus on the trees,” explained the study’s authors. Subjects who reflected on love tended to demonstrate “a holistic or global processing style,” while those who daydreamed about sex showed more of a “detail-oriented or local processing style” conducive to obtaining more direct results.

A study from Lile Jia and his colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington shows how “psychological distance” heightens creativity. Oren Shapira and Nira Lieberman, writers for Scientific American, explain, “[A]nything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the ‘psychologically distant’ category.”

Jia and associates generated one type of “psychological distance” known as “spatial distance” by giving subjects a creative generation task, having them name as many types of transportation as possible. Subjects were told the test questions were designed either by Indiana University students in Greece, or by students in Indiana. Subjects who believed the questions were created in Greece were able to list more vehicles.

Jia’s results provides support for prior studies, which showed that both “projecting an event into the remote future” and “distancing on the probability dimension”—having subjects believe a scenario was unlikely to occur—also increases creativity.

One conclusion that researchers might draw comparing both studies is whether or not a stroll with a romantic partner is viewed by subjects as less likely or perhaps occurring in the more distant future than a casual fling with a less significant partner.

Why are most muses women?

Scott Barry Kaufman, a writer for Psychology Today, lists several artists and writers whose work flourished because of “the mating motive,” a desire to showcase one’s “mental fitness” to attract a mate: Pablo Picasso and Sylvette David; John Lennon and Yoko Ono; famed director Woodie Allen and Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, and Scarlett Johansson. He cites only one male muse, poet and admirer Robert Browning, who inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Kaufman looks to the studies of Vladas Griskevicius, University of Minnesota professor, to tease apart these gender differences. In his study, men and women “primed” with self-selected photographs of the opposite sex taken from a dating Web site were asked to write about an imaginary date scenario with the person in the photo. His results showed that men were more creative in their stories than women.
In further studies by Griskevicius, women “primed” to reflect on short-term relationships or relationships with men who hadn’t merited their trust, did not demonstrate higher levels of creativity. Although men demonstrated higher levels regardless of commitment level, women showed enhanced creativity in one very distinct circumstance—having imagined an attraction to a “trustworthy and committed long-term mate.”

Kaufman explains, “These results suggest that women do indeed respond to the mating motive, but just require a bit more assurance … since they have a lot more at stake reproductively speaking.”

The Secret Lives of Writers’ Wives

Vladimir Nabokov; James Joyce; F. Scott Fitzgerald. These are names of the literary giants of the 20th century. But they didn’t get there on their own. Vera, Nora, Zelda: these are the names of the great writers’ wives—not as well known, perhaps, but essential.

Background: How anyone can be more creative

Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, who examined the work of inventors and artists such as the Wright Brothers, Charles Darwin and Jackson Pollock when writing his book, “Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation,” told Time magazine, “Ideas don’t magically appear in a genius’ head from nowhere. They always build on what came before.”

Sawyer argues that staying current about what others in your industry and in other fields are doing is critical. He explains, “[D]istant analogies lead to new ideas—like when a heart surgeon bounces things off an architect or a graphic designer.”

He also recommends stepping a way from a problem. Changing your focus and context engages different parts of the brain. “If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another,” says Sawyer.

Reference: Love on the Brain

In recent decades researchers have explored a topic usually left to Lord Byron and Shakespeare, enlightening us with case studies and breakthroughs helping to explain the strange, unavoidable compulsion to devote oneself to another.

NEXT: Can Romance Endure, or Does all Love Fade to Friendship?

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