How to be creative

Turn off the lights:

“Darkness increases freedom from constraints, which in turn promotes creativity,” report  Anna Steidle of the University of Stuttgart and Lioba Werth of the University of Hohenheim. A dimly lit environment, they explain in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” all of which encourage innovative thinking.

Steidle and Werth describe six experiments which provide evidence for their thesis. The key one featured 114 German undergraduates, who were seated in groups of two or three in a small room designed to simulate an office.

The room was lit by a fixture hanging from the ceiling directly above the desk. The amount of illumination varied, with some groups receiving only 150 lux (dim light), others 500 lux (the recommended lighting level for an office), and still others 1,500 lux (bright light).

After acclimating themselves for approximately 15 minutes, participants went to work on what the researchers describe as “four creative insight problems typically used in creativity research. These tasks require that individuals change their perceptions of a given problem in order to find the optimal solution.”

After spending two minutes attempting to solve each problem, participants rated how free from constraints they felt. They noted the degree to which they felt externally controlled, and reported their level of self-assurance.

The results: Those in the dimly lit room solved significantly more problems correctly than those in the brightly lit room. They also felt freer and less inhibited than their intensely illuminated counterparts. Participants in the bright and the conventionally lit rooms did not differ significantly from one another on either scale.