Too Square? Try Drawing Circles

Making curved motions leads to more insight, while jagged movements inhibit it, according to new research
wavy lines on black background
“The body influences how you think, and what you are experiencing physically can influence your style of thought,” says Michael Slepian, G14. Photo: DepositPhotos
April 5, 2012

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If we think of creativity as fluid and flowing, asks Michael Slepian, can moving in a fluid manner help us be more imaginative? A graduate student in psychology, Slepian studies embodied cognition, or the way the body influences thinking. He decided to put his theory to the test, and the results will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“Previous work has shown that the body influences what we’re thinking about,” he says, citing earlier studies he and other researchers have done. For example, people viewing gender-neutral faces generated by a computer were more likely to say the faces were male when they were squeezing a hard ball and to guess female when squeezing a soft ball. Similarly, says Slepian, people were more apt to describe someone’s personality as warm and friendly when holding a mug of hot coffee than when holding iced coffee.

In his latest study, Slepian wondered whether the notion of fluidity and ease could promote a more expansive thought process and facilitate creativity. He asked subjects to use their fingers to trace curved images on a computer screen, leading to fluid movement. He asked other subjects to trace straight, rigid lines, leading to rigid movement.

After drawing the lines, subjects were given three tasks. The first was to generate creative uses for a newspaper. People came up with more ideas after using the fluid movements, and their ideas were determined to be more creative by judges unaware of the underlying hypothesis. For instance, one person who drew fluid lines suggested that by using a pen to black out words, a poem could be created with the remaining words. Another suggested that by wetting the newspaper, letters could be transferred on to a fingernail. On the other hand, one participant who had traced the rigid lines merely suggested using the newspaper for scrap paper.

In a second test, Slepian looked at cognitive flexibility, the notion that if you are thinking creatively, you are thinking more broadly. He found that those who drew wavy lines were less rigid thinkers. “If people are thinking creatively, they are more willing to believe a camel is an appropriate example of a vehicle,” he says, “or a stove is an example of furniture.”

In the final example, Slepian looked at people’s ability to make a connection between three seemingly unrelated words. For example, a subject was given the words “pine,” “crab” and “sauce” and asked for a fourth word related to those three—the answer being “apple.” People who made fluid movements were more likely to make that connection.

While Slepian’s tests showed that making fluid movements promoted creativity, those curvy moves did not help with analytical tasks, such as solving math problems.

Why is all this important? Slepian says it is more evidence that “the body influences how you think, and that what you are experiencing physically can influence your style of thought.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.