Broaden Your Visual Attention to Boost Creative Thinking

We normally take advice such as to “look at the big picture and not the details” figuratively, but it turns out that literary looking at the big picture can temporarily improve creative thinking.

Psychologist Ronald Friedman and his colleagues found support for this mind hack in several experiments. In one experiment, for example, subjects were shown maps of particular U.S. states. Some subjects were asked to focus on an entire state, such as Pennsylvania, for an entire time that the map was shown, and also to avoid focusing on any particular city or region of that map. Other subjects were asked to focus on a particular city, such as Selinsgrove in Pennsylvania. As the researchers predicted, those who looked at the big picture did noticeably better on a subsequent creativity task.

Similar to BEMs, the effect of this mind hack is not overwhelmingly great but it still might provide you with some appreciable boost.

Why It Works

The main explanation why this mind hack works is based on the “identity” hypothesis, which suggests that broadening or narrowing our attention on external world relies on the same neural mechanism that broadens or narrows attention on internal ideas or conceptual representations. So by broadening your visual attention on the world around you, you will also broaden the internal or conceptual attention on the world inside you.

Why broadened conceptual attention should help creativity? Creativity often depends on our ability to make new connections or unconventional associations, and thinking in broader categories, as opposed to narrower or more traditional categories, will encourage more remote associations. In essence, thinking in broader categories makes it easier to come up with more atypical and unusual associations, some of which may lead to highly original and valuable ideas.

How To Do It

The technique for this mind hack is pretty straightforward. If you’re in your office or your room, then simply try to focus as broadly as you can on the whole room and don’t look at some particular object or part of the room.

If you’re passing the forest, look at the whole forest and not at particular trees. Using broadened visual attention to search for some item might be even more effective. Try to do it for at least a few minutes.

Furthermore, even subtle cues of broadened visual attention can help. The same researchers also found that merely raising eyebrows can help creativity because we’ve learned to associate raised eyebrows with broadened visual perception; conversely, furrowed brows signal narrowed visual perception, which will also lead to more narrowed internal attention.

References

Ronald S. Friedman, Ayelet Fishbach, Jens Förster, and Lioba Werth, “Attentional Priming Effects on Creativity”, Creativity Research Journal, 15, 277–286 (2003). DOI:10.1080/10400419.2003.9651420.