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Breaking Down Virtual-Reality Walls May Boost Creativity

Chinese researchers demonstrate how high-tech tools can be used to harness the power of metaphor.
A man experiences Google's new Daydream View VR headset.

Have you had any creative breakthroughs recently? Even if not, you've got to appreciate the vividness of that expression. Coming up with innovative ideas requires breaking through some mental barrier, pushing past constraints constructed by habit and convention.

New research from China shows the power of such symbolism, and points to how it can be harnessed to heighten one's imagination. It provides evidence that breaking walls in a virtual-reality setting increases creativity.

"These findings may indicate that enacting metaphors such as 'breaking the rules' contribute to creative performance," writes a research team led by psychologist Xinyue Wang of East China Normal University in Shanghai. Its study is published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The small-scale study featured 41 Chinese undergraduates, all of whom donned virtual-reality headgear and played out a short scene in which they traveled through a series of corridors. "Participants could move forward by clicking the 'forward' button on the gamepad, and control the turn direction by their own body movement," the researchers explain.

Half of the students played a version in which "a wall would appear in the middle of each small corridor," they report. "Participants needed to break the wall by clicking the 'backward' button, or knocking it down with the gamepad." The other half encountered no barriers.

To assess their creativity, all students performed a series of problems from the Alternative Uses Task, a common measure of creative ability in which one is asked to come up with novel uses for a common object. Half came up with offbeat uses as they walked down the virtual corridor (whether or not doing so necessitated breaking down walls), while the others did so immediately afterwards.

Either way, "superior creative performance was observed in the 'break' condition," the researchers report. This result supports the thesis that the "bodily experience" of breaking down barriers "would spread to conceptual processing."

The research team, which also included American creativity scholar Mark Runco, speculates that the perception that one can successfully break the rules may have created "a sense of liberation" that prompted more creative thinking.

Further analysis found students who had broken down the virtual doors scored higher on two specific facets of creativity: persistence (their willingness to "dig out ideas and construct responses within one category") and flexibility (their ability to come up with responses that fit into various categories). For example, novel uses for a brick could fall into such far-flung categories as weapon, shelter, and arts and crafts.

While a larger study will be needed to replicate and refine these results, the research intriguingly suggests the actions we take in a virtual-reality landscape can enhance an important real-world skill. It's another reason to try out this new technology: Even as you're marveling at the creativity of its creators, you may be enhancing your own.