Power of the Mind

(September 14th, 2017) Do you want to be more creative? No problem; scientists in Israel say it only needs some mind trickery.

Scientific studies, personal experience or anecdotal evidence suggest that certain substances, such as beer or lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), can make you more creative. Just remember that Nobel Laureate, Kary Mullis, fessed up to having used LSD when inventing the polymerase chain reaction technique. But, as recent research shows, no drugs are needed to enhance your creativity. All it takes, the study says, is just an olfactory stimulus and a few kind words from a researcher.

“The placebo effect is usually studied in clinical settings for decreasing negative symptoms such as pain, depression and anxiety,” write Uri Alon and colleagues from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In pain, for instance, placebo administration leads to the activation of endogenous opioids and dopamine. Some studies suggest that placebo influences cognition, too. When healthy seniors, for instance, were told they were to receive a pill that enhances their mental abilities, they actually did better than the control group in subsequent cognitive tests.

In Israel, Alon and co. invited volunteers to their lab and gave them something to sniff – a component of the odour of cinnamon (cinnamaldehyde). A fraction of the volunteers were additionally told that it’s a “unique odour, developed in our lab, which increases creativity and lowers inhibitions”. Then the creativity tests began.

In one test, the study participants were sat in front of a computer and played a game. Creating shapes out of ten identical squares, connected by an edge. There are more than 36,000 possibilities and some of them are more easily found than others. In another test, the volunteers received a list of five common items, such as shoe, button or nail, and were asked to “list as many alternate uses as possible for each object within ten minutes”.

As you may have guessed, the “placebo group” indeed performed better in those two tests, when the scientists scored for originality – the extent to which a player finds solutions not found by others.

Alon et al. have two possible explanations for this phenomenon. Either it has to do with intrinsic motivation: their encouraging words at the beginning of the experiment may have left the participants feeling more competent, believing in their own strength. Or, with reduced inhibition, which was also part of the initial suggestion. “Creativity was found to increase in several studies that tested conditions with reduced inhibitions, such as alcohol consumption,” the authors say. Or, even more likely, both worked together.

Next, the researchers want to elucidate the behavioural and neural mechanisms behind their findings.


Picture: Pixabay/Quesnay

Last Changes: 10.04.2017

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