Most of us have experienced that chills-down-your spine feeling of awe. The texture of handmade al dente pasta at La Darsena, an outdoor café in the lakefront town of Como, Italy. The dangerous acrobatics of a Cirque du Soleil performance during a hot Montreal summer. For me, seeing my newborn twins—Avi and Tallia—make it through 104 days in neonatal intensive care after being born fourteen weeks premature and each weighing only two pounds. (Today they are both happy, healthy, and hilarious four-year-olds.)
Moments of true awe are inspiring. It turns out, they also boost creativity.
In the Lombardy region of Italy, just seventy-four minutes by car from the aforementioned pasta, researchers conducted a study to gauge the impact of awe on creativity. Participants volunteered for the 2018 study, which was a joint effort between Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and Webster University Geneva.
Each participant was given a virtual reality headset and asked to watch a short film. Split into two randomly selected groups, half the participants were shown an awe-inspiring video that depicted stunning nature scenes—majestic redwood trees, dramatic cliffs descending into crashing waves in the ocean below, a rainbow of iridescent fish circling a coral reef. The less-lucky control group tried to stay awake while being shown an incredibly dull video of hens wandering the grass.
Immediately after viewing the videos, participants were asked to complete parts of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, widely considered to be the gold standard test for measuring creativity. The participants were an equal number of men and women, all from the same geographic region with similar educational back- grounds and work experience, so you’d expect each group to perform identically. Yet the simple step of experiencing awe or dullness had a massive impact on creative output. In fact, participants who first experienced awe crushed the other group with the ferocity that an NFL Pro Bowl team would smoke a group of high school freshmen.
The Torrance Test measures four components of creativity: fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality. In the experiment, the awe-inspired group outperformed the dullness group by 70 percent on fluency, 69 percent on flexibility, 79 percent on elaboration, and a whopping 114 percent on originality. When averaged together, the group that was nearly identical going in outperformed their peers by 83 percent simply by having an inspiring experience before attempting a creative task.
Whether or not a subject viewed themselves as creative before arriving, simply injecting a little awe into their consciousness boosted their creative performance by a country mile. How can such a small change to the environment play such a gigantic role in output? The key insight: we already have an enormous reservoir of dormant creativity waiting to be unlocked.
The high percentage increase indicates that the participants’ ability was already there, since a new skill can’t be learned and mastered so quickly. Instead, those abilities were hidden away, just waiting for someone to unlock the vault and let them out to play. Knowing that you likely have a surplus of dormant creative capacity, isn’t it time you made some small adjustments to unlock it?