Creative Freedom Vs. Obstacles: What Really Works

It’s a pretty popular notion that creativity is about freedom. However, a new study by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam and posted in Wired‘s Frontal Cortex blog, lends support to this concepts counter: that limitations and barriers are what lead to the greatest creativity.

“Daily life is full of obstacles: A construction site blocking the usual road to work, a colleague’s background chatter interfering with one’s ability to concentrate, a newborn child hindering parents in completing their daily routines, or a lack of resources standing in the way of realizing an ambitious plan,” as explained in the introduction of the paper on the study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

It continues, “Unless people are inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities, obstacles will prompt them to step back and adopt a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that allows them to look at the “big picture” and conceptually integrate seemingly unrelated pieces of information.”

Consider: You take the same route to work each day. Then, one day, a car crash backs up traffic, threatening to make you late. You take a turn that you don’t usually take, hoping to find a way around the traffic. You mind just find that these back roads present a faster way around a larger road that is full of traffic and stoplights, giving you more time every morning. But you never would have bothered to take that random turn if an obstacle had not forced you to look for alternatives.

In one of the experiments, people were given the following image, and then asked to describe it.

Image from Wired

One group was allowed to study the image distraction-free, while the other group was forced to listen to a series of unrelated words while they reviewed the image. The people in the second group were much more likely to perceive that the E, S, A and H were made up of As, Hs, Es and Ss, respectively. The group subjected to an obstacle demonstrated a greater capacity for local thinking (noticing details) in addition to global thinking (taking in the big picture).

This and other experiments from the study led to an overwhelming conclusion: imagination benefits from being challenged. So next time you find yourself facing an obstacle, don’t get discouraged–embrace it.


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