A traditional image of innovation involves a light bulb emerging above the head of the lucky soul for whom inspiration has suddenly struck. A new study from Germany however suggests that too much light may actually harm our creative urges.
The researchers wanted to test the role our work environment has on things like our levels of productivity and creativity. They asked participants to solve various creative problems, whilst varying the degree of light available in the rooms within which they worked. The creative problems were split between creative insight problems and creative generation. The former requires participants to create innovative solutions to problems. The latter requires the participant to create something new, which in this case was to draw an alien from another planet.
Participants had to do these tasks under a variety of lighting conditions whilst in a bog standard classroom environment. The lighting ranged from 150 lux (dim) up to 1500 lux (bright). To add to the mix, the researchers also asked participants to imagine they were in variously lit environments as well to test whether merely thinking about it made a difference.
The results were fascinating. Not only did those working in dim conditions show better creative performance, but those who were primed merely to think about the gloom did as well.
The study found that our perceptions of creativity aligned with those of darkness. The gloom inspired feelings of freedom and self-determination in participants. Just the sort of emotions needed to be creative.
"Based on the present results," the researchers say, "we conclude that priming darkness and dim illumination have similar effects on creative performance due to their shared link to freedom from constraints and the concomitant explorative processing style."
One thing that is worth noting however is that the findings were only observed when the light source came from above the participants. When gloomy environs were provided from below, as with candlelight for instance, then no differences were observed.
Another point of note is that the researchers also tested how participants best analysed the ideas they came up with. They found that our analysis of ideas is best performed when the light is bright. So we come up with ideas best when it's dim, but analyse those ideas best when it's bright.