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Is Creativity Physically Contagious? How Touching Stuff Can Make You Smarter

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
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Image via Gratisography

A recent Harris poll found that hands-on learning is the most popular method of education in the United States — but it’s most likely that the pollsters meant “learning by actively doing,” rather than just “touching stuff.” However, a different study has found that the power of touch itself might actually be a way to be more creative.

According to the recently-published study, which was conducted by Thomas Kramer of the University of South Carolina and Lauren Block of the City University of New York, merely coming in physical contact with an object that was once used or touched by a person who you think of as notable, inspirational, or even just smart, can spur something called “magical thinking,” which is defined as “irrational peculiar beliefs,” which at times lead to more innovative, creative thought.

“This is the first paper to show that specific abilities can transfer through contagion,” wrote the researchers, who asked participants to handle a series of test prep materials before taking a test. Those who handled the study guide which appeared to have been previously used by a participant who had performed well (the test prep materials were clearly marked with the previous subject’s score) did better on the tests. Essentially, creative thought and problem solving was physically contagious, due to increased confidence.

Kramer and Block note in their assessment of the text that it could have “interesting and unexplored managerial implications for the workplace,” where employers might be able to boost the confidence of some employees by allowing them to physically handle the materials or property of another employee who had performed well at a certain task.

On a personal level, these findings could be good inspiration to visit places where some of your favorite creatives might have lived or worked. Just touching Kurt Vonnegut’s typewriter or the camera of your favorite local photographer might spur your next big creative moment. It might even inspire your interior decor choices; Seattle-based advice columnist Dan Savage famously purchased and writes at Ann Landers’ desk.

The only hitch in this potential creative breakthrough: Only “intuitive thinkers,” or people who are already prone to “magical thought” and a suspension of logic (i.e., not the kid who told everyone in kindergarten that the Easter Bunny was clearly a fraud) were shown to demonstrate this effect.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.