Love, But Not Lust, Inspires Creativity

New research finds love inspires creativity, but thoughts of sex stimulate analytical thinking.
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Over the centuries, romantic love has inspired countless composers, poets and painters. But what exactly is the link between artistry and amour? Newly published psychological research refines this eternal equation, suggesting that while love does inspire creativity, thoughts of sex enhance analytical thinking.

"Love and lust lead to different ways of perceiving the world," the research team, led by psychologist Jens Forster of the University of Amsterdam, reports in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. While love inspires musings about long-term outcomes (having kids, growing old together, etc.), thoughts of sex tends to focus the mind on the here and now.

Love, in other words, is dreamy, and dreams are linked to creativity. Sex, on the other hand, is about achieving an immediate goal.

The researchers asked 60 university students to imagine either a long walk with their beloved partner, or casual sex with someone they were attracted to but not in love with. They were then asked to solve four logic problems from the Graduate Record Exam and three problems requiring creative thinking to come up with a solution.

Of the questions requiring creative insights to solve, those who had thought about love and romance did best, with those who had thought about sex coming in last (after members of the control group, who thought about taking a solitary stroll). The reverse was true of the logic questions: The group thinking about sex performed the best.

These findings were confirmed in a second test, in which participants were "primed" by having words related either to love or sex flashed in front of their eyes. (They were told it was an attention test.) Once again, those with sex on the brain did best at the logic questions, while those who had been reminded of love had superior results with the creative thinking questions.

"People process information in two fundamentally different ways: They focus on the forest, or they focus on the trees," the researchers write. "Whereas the former illustrates a holistic or global processing style, the latter reflects a more detail-oriented or local processing style.

"These ways of perception have been closely linked to creative vs. analytic thought. Whereas global processing leads to creative thought, local processing facilitates analytic thinking."

Romantic love, they note, "usually involves a long-terms goal or desire of staying together with a person ... and thus contains a perspective on the distant future." Thinking ahead that far entails making a creative leap, so it's not surprising that one's creative capacity would be stimulated.

In contrast, the researchers add, "Goals triggered by sexual desire are more specific in nature" and thus benefit from analytic thinking, such as coming up with "specific strategies of seduction."

The researchers concede that feelings of love and lust can, and often do, overlap. But their data suggest the two impulses are independent "on a cognitive level," and it is love, not sex, that gets the creative juices flowing.

This explains the relative paucity of Odes to a One-Night Stand.

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